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

The Secret-Box

Some information needs to be kept silent, siloed. Most information in that category is of no importance. There’s no desire to pass it on. But some information are secrets that burn hot in the stomach, like toad swallowed whole and ready to push its way back up, flinging itself wide into the world at a moment’s notice.

When I have these types of secrets, I clench my jaw shut and swallow it down again and again, becoming exhausted from the weight of it. It’s not sustainable. It would not scale if I became the keeper of more secrets.

Some secrets can be refused, and it is often wise to refuse those heavy gifts courteously.

But sometimes secrets happen, and part of being a good ally is to keep them safe.

How do we get better at carrying them?

I had such a burden recently. I accepted it without understanding exactly how heavy it would feel. After a week of struggling, I realized I had to do something about it.

This seemed like a good time to visit my memory palace, the house on the hill. I sat down on the couch, closed my eyes, and began to space out hard. My friend was in the room too, co-working. Yep, I looked weird, flopped back, limbs limp.

The climb up to the house had was easy enough, scrambling up some mossy granite. No wind that day, just scattered wispy clouds in the sky leaving a slightly grayed-out sunlight. In the cabin the fireplace was burning like always, with the mantle full of pointers to the memories I wanted to keep safe.

The first step was to make a container for the secret. The secret deserved a beautiful box. I spun up an image of an intricate and extraordinary box with a large cutout of a keyhole. Really, the box itself represented the secret so fully, it itself was a part of the secret. This would serve well as a link to and from the memories I needed to put away.

The next step was to watch for pieces of secret and gently guide them into the box, one by one. Wait, find another, and put that one in too. The secret was an extensive tangle of feelings and information. It was made of fear, joy, confusion, facts, physical objects, and a memory. Some of the tendrils were tied to things in the physical world, and I carefully pruned those associations to something manageable. The ones that were necessary parts of the secret went in the box.

What it felt like I was doing was experiencing a relevant sensation, memory, association, or anything else that related to the secret. I’d have a sense of that feeling in physical space, and would visualize guiding it into the box. This part of the technique requires visual imagery, but creating a very strong association with words other sensations might suffice. It was important to know that I was respecting every bit of the secret, and that it would actually be safe in this box. I avoid compartmentalizing if I’m going to forget that the compartment is there. The memory palace would keep that compartment safe.

The box, closed, needed a hiding place within my memory palace. I went to the fireplace, the heart of my house-on-the-hill, with the mantle full of memories. A specific blueish stone near the hearth became free of its mortar, revealing a hollow pocket. I put the box in that pocket and replaced the stone.

As I turned to go, a wave of sadness arose. Parts of this secret were beautiful, after all. But it would be safe here, and I could visit it at any time. I put the stone back in place and returned to reality, blinking into awareness on my couch in late afternoon sunlight, lighter.

It worked. I no longer have urges to relieve myself from that informational burden. I can carry it.

Overall, this process took around 15 minutes. With practice, I think this process could go faster. But that hopefully won’t be necessary. My memory palace isn’t a junkyard for secrets foolishly accepted.

This technique is precise and self-aware compartmentalization, with a recoverable compartment. In general, compartmentalization is a powerful tool, but I avoid using it except when necessary. Overuse can lead to weird memory problems, personality shifts, dissociation, and general disintegration as a person.

Instead, I try to use it consciously and carefully, with the smallest viable chunk of experience. The information should be recoverable, so we can come back to it, and temporary, so that it can get reintegrated later.

The other way this seems to work is the slightly placebo magic of “Oh, I dealt with that already. It’s not a problem now, because it’s dealt with.”

Really, this is all damage control. The more important technique to making secret-keeping sustainable business is to refuse all but the ones that matter. If information would cause you to have to compromise your values or sacrifice your honesty, it is better refused as the weighty gift it is.

The next thing to learn is how to tell the difference.