Tempo and Runway

A common San Francisco pattern goes like this: spend 5 years at a tech company, take acid, go to a mediation retreat, hit up a festival, realize the spiritual corruptness of the employee lifestyle, drop out, and embark on a spirit quest.

These dropouts become the owners of a resource known as runway, the amount of resources available to spend on this spirit quest. Runway is commonly managed in terms of burn rate, the amount of resources spent per unit of time.

Let’s make the metaphor literal. A runway is the amount of paved space for a plane to take off. We’ve landed somewhere, funemployed and confused, and need to get our personal planes to take off again to go someplace better. The cost of failure is dire: stalling out and returning to the same tech job, runway gone, with 5 more years until the next crisis is allowed to hit.

Many of those living on runway consider the time they have left before they hit the end. But time is the wrong metric.

The goal is to get the plane up again.

To add to the metaphor, tempo is the speed of the plane. If the plane is going slowly, you need a long runway. If the plane isn’t moving at all, all the runway in the world isn’t going to matter. If the plane is getting towed by a train, gunning all four turbo engines, and hopping onto someone elses’ runway, who needs runway?

This mistake can be brutal. Last year, I lowered my burn rate (and thus tempo) and entered a hibernating state. The plane does not take off this way.

I discovered the concept of tempo from the strategic card game Magic: The Gathering. The idea is that a player can act at a faster pace than their opponents, drawing, casting, and doing damage at a higher rate.¹ That pace is tempo, is one of the most important indicators of who wins.²

In Magic, drawing another card can up the tempo. Passing a turn decreases the tempo.

If we think about runway in terms of tempo, not time, a new strategy becomes clear. We need to find the things that up the tempo without much increasing burn rate.

“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.”

Thomas J Watson

Things that up the tempo:

  • Ditching your rent and couchsurfing around the city, country, or world
  • Buying an electric scooter or car, which rewards frequency of motion
  • Going to conferences, workshops, and weird events that drive the spirit quest forward
  • An intervention that fixes a problem
  • Permanent skill acquisition
  • Log costs per unit of action

Things that down the tempo:

  • Using rideshares to get around, which adds a fixed cost to motion and disincentivizes a faster pace
  • Cancelling classes, coaches, gym membership, and travel plans
  • Interventions that require ongoing maintenance
  • Keeping the same routine
  • Paying someone to do something routine to avoid learning a skill
  • Linear costs per unit of action

There are two common failure modes from upping the tempo.

First is upping something unrelated to anything we care about. You can be very busy and “productive” while having a low tempo when it comes to things that matter. Check: Is an action upping the tempo or adding busyness and wheel-spinning? Is the action moving you in a direction you want to go?

Without a clear goal in mind, it’s harder to tell. But if we’re in a car and don’t know where we want to go, only knowing it’s not where we are now, getting the car moving is a good start. Some busyness for the sake of busyness resembles engine-idling more than motion.

Second, there’s a limit to how fast we can go. If our speed is faster than our metaphorical wheels can turn, we can’t keep up, we’re burning ourselves up unsustainably. So while many of us should up the tempo, the law of equal and opposite advice holds.

Tempo isn’t only for unemployed spirit-questers living on runway. If you view runway as renewable via income, we’re all on the runway, ultimately in a race against death with burnout on one end and stagnation on the other.

Let’s get our planes going at the right speed.

Have ideas for ways to up the tempo? Email me at mesolude@gmail.com


¹ “When we talk about tempo, we’re talking about how each player is doing in the race to deal 20 damage to each other without dying in the process.” https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/magic-academy/introduction-tempo-2006-09-30

² “His most important statement this time is: Whoever spends the most mana will almost always end up winning the game.” http://magic.tcgplayer.com/db/article.asp?ID=3777

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