When I started this newsletter, I was embedded in tech - her worldview, her aspirations and her vernacular. Like a ravenous dog, I salivated when treats (
stocks) were bandied in front of me. I dreamed of starting a company. Like every other formerly-gifted kid who listened to Steve Jobs and believed their own hype. I yearned for the day my creations might make a dent in the universe. Whatever the hell that meant 🤷🏽♂️.
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Tech was so ingrained in my being. My Twitter timeline was a toast to the altar of tech: venture capitalists tooting their horns, self-appointed thought leaders thunking their threads at us, and devoted "fanbois" cheering from the sidelines. Someone was always telling us how to be more productive: how to fit more work in our time, instead of finding work we wanted to do in our limited time. Remember, the lucky ones amongst us will only get four thousand weeks on this planet.
On YouTube, I'd listen to successful people unintentionally provide stunning evidence for the Dunning-Kruger effect. Because they'd made money via software, they believed they should dictate how other fields worked. They'd make arrogant claims about how children ought to learn and how diseases spread. This seemed unique to tech: I'm sure the CEO of Cadillac had personal opinions on COVID, but I sure never heard them. That is not a coincidence.
I wondered if I had followed the wrong people online. Was it me? Did I curate my media diet incorrectly or was this emblematic of the space? I got tired of the superiority complex: the puffed-out chest while regurgitating half-baked ideas, the quoting of ancient philosophers to prove supremacy, the bullshit myths about 10x engineers that are supposedly able to turn water into wine. I rolled my eyes at the Chamaths, the Sam Harrises, the Elons.
Over time, I became conflicted with my feelings towards tech and startups. On one hand, I felt and still feel software is a miracle that is hugely transformative. It's difficult to overstate the good that software does because it's everywhere, all at once. We get our dates, our food and our jobs through tech. The four thousand mile radius of the Earth has forever shrunken, now that we can videocall anyone, anywhere. We wander around the globe knowing that Google Maps will get us home. We dance the pain away with Spotify and murder boredom with TikTok.
I once spoke to someone who told me that their startup's idea was to put internet-connected cameras on toilet seats. The hope was that they could analyse stool samples to determine a health baseline and recommend doctor checkups when things deviated. Not a bad idea by itself. But when I pointed out what seemed obvious to me, that a woman's toilet camera would get hacked and streamed live online, he seemed shocked. As if I had revealed something astounding to him.
A similar thing happened when Facebook announced their Ray Ban Stories sunglasses. The glasses let you record video without any obvious visual sign to nearby people. The first time I saw this, I instantly thought of misuse. Someone is going to use this to record another person without their consent. It is bound to happen. I couldn't understand why the product team would release this without a clear visual signal that indicated "recording". For what it's worth, they eventually added a red dot.
These kinds of stories illustrate my issues with tech and startup culture. It's often all too optimistic without due regard to the failure modes. I was trained as a chemical engineer in college. In that world, engineering mistakes lead to explosions, toxic gas leaks and poisoned lakes. So thinking ahead about disasters was drilled into our heads.
I understand the chemical engineering world is different. If your process plant blows up, it's clear you messed up. But if the Capitol is raided by armed insurgents, is that Twitter's fault? It's less direct and attributable. If a Robinhood user tragically takes their own life because they wrongly thought they owed $750,000, is that the company's fault? Is that the consequence of poor design decisions?
Every now and then, a company hires researchers to look into the negative externalities of its products, but this is obviously a futile game. Are we honestly supposed to believe that they will make serious changes if they find problems with their cashcows? Do we look stupid? There's a reason Exxon hid all that research about climate change. The money machine will always reign supreme. The history of capitalism is instructive here.
I launched this newsletter to bring an air of ethics to the way we talked about tech. The name "The Perfect MVP" is an oxymoron, an intentional juxtaposition of two opposing ideas: an MVP is fundamentally imperfect and unfinished because it is a prototype. And yet, we need to yearn for more perfect software and companies because the stakes are so high.
It's precisely this in-between, this ambiguity that has inspired me to reconsider the name of my newsletter. And, as I've realised, it's these subtleties, the nuances in everything - from the everyday mundane to the soul wrenching - that propel us forward. To make progress, we need to ponder. To move forward, we need to reflect. To find the light, we need to wander the grey.
What does it mean to wander the grey?
"Wandering the grey" is for introspective, curious people who are unsatisfied with default thinking. Those who dare to question the unfulfilling narratives they've been sold. This isn't a breakup story. I will still write about tech when it makes sense. But the scope will broaden: we'll talk about work, life and play.
There are things we feel but never say out loud. Stories we've been told that we question. Paths we're on that we secretly despise. Expectations of us that we’re not sure we want to fulfil.
Perhaps you're unfulfilled in a high-paying job or you're worried about layoffs. Maybe you're questioning your former devotion to a company that fired you via a cold, automated email at 2AM. Or you're reimagining what ambition and success look like?
Should you buy a house and settle down, or rip up that playbook and travel till your wallet weeps? Is there sufficient play in your life? Do you have a bucket list? Are you mourning someone, your youth, or your freedom?
You're in the grey if you can relate to these questions.
The grey is contradictory and multifaceted. It's simultaneously outside and within. It's Karl the Fog, threatening to hover over your skyline forever, before it ultimately passes over. A metaphor for the dissonance we all carry in our heads. But it's also your grey matter: your brain's processing hub where we make sense of the stories we tell ourselves when nobody is looking.
The grey encompasses all the different versions of you. Not merely the angel and devil on your shoulder. It comprises the confident chap that's also insecure and the bubbly Betty that hates attention. The grey is the honest acceptance of self, an amalgamation of the all inner you's.
The most growth in life happens in the grey. You already know your should eat your vegetables. That's settled wisdom. It lives in the black and white category. But what should you optimise your life for? Should life even be optimised? How do you make decisions without being swayed by your ego or desire for validation? Who has the pen in the story of your life?
Today, I'm perfectly perched in the grey. Just landed in Barcelona to start the next phase of my sabbatical. A jaded, former tech devotee donning grey sweatpants looking to explore the in-between. For those who wish to similarly set sail or cruise in my tailwinds, I hope these reflections are insightful. I hope they light little fires inside you that bring you closer to where you want to be.
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Please send any Barcelona recommendations (food, football, arts, culture, history, dance!) my way. Feel free to respond in the comments or reply to this email :)
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I love how you talk about the grey nature of tech. I feel like as a product manager, it's so easy to get caught up in the business and metrics and general silicon valley hype that sometimes people forget some of the basic tenants of what it means to be a human and how that impacts our work. I love the new direction for the substack, and I'm excited to see how your reflections on this topic change as you get deeper into your sabbatical.
I have been wandering in the grey-ish zone for a few years now. I could not find the words to explain it as you did but I have so many examples, it’s crazy! Our upbringings are different, and I never really followed the most polished narrative, a life-long contrarian, but the reflection you are having in an interesting one. No need to physically leave to travel, really (I hate it), but I do identify to what you say. Enjoy your time there!