A Realignment with Gary Chou

I’ve spent the last ten years working in physics and mathematics tutoring. Part of what has been satisfying about that endeavor is that the intimacy of teaching one on one forces out articulations of abstract theory that are both palatable and personal. Through our work at ac4d, I’ve noticed that interaction design is laced with similar themes: theory grounded in practice and empathy. As I was listening to Gary Chou give a talk at the school last night, I was deeply encouraged by his ability to expose and align broad theory through a surprisingly open and personal articulation of his own experiences.

An idea that resonated strongly with me was the confidence and value inherent in embracing uncertainty. Gary shared insight about his time at Union Square Ventures and how–as a company–USV’s comfort with their own uncertainty had fostered a culture that wanted to learn from everyone they came into contact with and that ultimately led to them identifying opportunity and appreciating value that wasn’t already self evident.

More profoundly, Gary was acting out the theme as he was speaking to us: he’s putting much of his energy into an idea that he doesn’t yet understand how to bring to life. In conjunction with several other themes: Learning through Teaching, Structured Chaos, Activism through Creation, and the move to a Networked World; Gary built a compelling narrative about the potential for a Guilded Workplace. His vision is aimed at testing new theories through practice with small teams that are brought together by mutual interest in projects or ideas. The collaboration is inherently temporary and focused while encouraging learning through teaching, cross disciplinary roles, and shared tactics.

Gary’s talk was influential on many levels for me in no small part because his ideas are so strongly aligned with his practice.

Even the way that Gary delivered the talk embodied the themes he shared: Gary would stop mid sentence to welcome people who showed up late and introduce them to the group, or prompt someone from the audience to share something with the group.  Throughout the talk Gary’s depth of thought was evident but it was contrasted by his willingness to speak directly off the top of his head and let things topple out however they came: a sort of orchestrated entropy.

Perhaps closely related, Gary is actively trying to uncover a method for locating these pockets of people with mutual interest. So maybe Gary was intentionally trying to deliver his talk in a way that encouraged some level of chaos and interaction in it’s wake with the themes he built rippling out and shaping new thoughts. Maybe that’s Gary’s plan for identifying mutual interest and provoking himself into identifying opportunities for professional guilds. But my gut tells me that the orchestration of something so open ended is more likely the natural consequence of Gary’s willingness to take so much of what matters to him  and push it into practice. And as he articulated activism–the creative expression of belief–this is a powerful form of it.

Part of the reason that I came to ac4d was that I want to pursue a more unstructured professional path. I enjoy intense focus as well as space from ideas. I think there are many talented people that identify strongly with the notion of learning by collaborating with new people and working on projects that are inherently temporary. And so Gary Chou’s willingness to put theory into practice is both inspiring and horrifying. If he’s daring himself to make it happen, then it means that I’ll have to find a way as well.