1 September 2020

September 2020

Grüezi!

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0. Introduction

It took me a number of years (this is not a typo) to finally send this first newsletter. Going against everything I preach about launching things (“done is better than perfect”), I felt crushed under the weight of (1) many ongoing projects and thoughts I’d like to share, (2) the dilemma between taking the time to write a summary and actually getting “stuff” done, (3) perfectionism: wanting to write something interesting enough that you would actually enjoy reading, (4) and the fear of appearing self-centred.

To be fair, the way I initially envision this newsletter is self-centred: it’s my lazy way to share with you some updates and news about what is going on in my life. But I do strive to also inspire you, share ideas with you, and receive feedback from you. This newsletter will undoubtedly evolve over time. I encourage you to not hesitate in emailing me directly, especially if something has caught your attention (for ease of reference, you can use the paragraph numbering). Thank you for reading.

1. What I'm reading

1.1. Originals. Since I mentioned procrastination in the introductory paragraphs above, let me start by sharing a book I have read a few years ago. Its interesting research has inspired numerous talks I have given to various audiences as part of my work at Google (read below). This book is titled Originals: How Non Conformists Change The World and is authored by Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton who’s also regularly writing for the New York Times. Coincidentally, the long excerpts I have extracted from his book are the most popular content on my personal website. So I feel twice guilty: once for profusely quoting his research in my talks, a second time by attracting a few random visitors to my website, inadvertently so since my intention is to centralise book excerpts for my own use and to more easily reference them when mentioning them to others.

The book made me realise that it was okay to procrastinate, albeit under one condition. That condition? To actually get started right away with whatever you have to do – but then let your ideas rest, effectively allowing your subconscious mind to process them (we seem to have a better memory for incomplete tasks) and be creative, before getting back to them. Quoting:

"It was only when [creators] began thinking about the task and then deliberately procrastinated that they considered more remote possibilities and generated more creative ideas. Delaying progress enabled them to spend more time considering different ways to accomplish it, rather than “seizing and freezing” on one particular strategy. (...) Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity. (...) In ancient Egypt, there were two different verbs for procrastination: one denoted laziness; the other meant waiting for the right time".

1.2. The Gulag Archipelago. I recently finished reading the first of three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. No particular reason triggered my desire to read that book in the past month, except perhaps a mention made by a participant of the Alone show (see below “What I’m watching”). I had heard of the book ever since high school: it was time that I read it… except I didn’t realise it was made up of three volumes of 800 pages each! While I don’t easily shy away from thick books, the first volume was sufficiently horrific (yet incredibly sarcastic) that it gave me a good-enough taste of the entire opus. As a conscientious student in history classes, I had of course been aware of the monstrosities committed by the Soviet regime. But I hadn’t fully grasped its cruelty at scale, the utter absence of rationality in interrogation rooms, the myriads of unimaginable torture methods. Oh and if you think this is mere craziness from a distant past, I encourage you to read this BBC article about the Uighurs’ treatment.

Out of the many excerpts I took from the book, there’s one that particularly stands out for me as I’m too often one who sees the glass half empty instead of half full:

“What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I'll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusory-property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life – don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don't freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don't claw at your insides. If your back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart-and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted in their memory!”

2. Health

My health remains a concern though. Oh sure it’s not the end of the world, as Solzhenitsyn’s quote above keeps on reminding me. But it has been a bit of drag to not be able to play sports as much as I wanted to throughout the summer, if anything to remain fit: for the past two months, the meniscus of my left knee has been causing a feeling of constant discomfort, day and night, whatever position I was in except perhaps sitting. This was perhaps caused from running too many 5-kilometre jogs (at a terribly slow pace though – around the half-hour mark, I wasn’t trying to win any medals), which is all the more ironic since I dislike “fitness” activities, preferring to sweat (win) at team or individual sports instead. Of course my knee problem is completely self-diagnosed since I’m stubbornly refusing to go to the hospital, blindly believing that my godlike body will heal by itself.

At the same time, I’m not sure I want to hear from doctors. After ghosting me for a couple of years, one of my exes – a general practitioner – messaged out of the blue to enquire about my health, reminding me that I was at risk during those coronavirus times because of my past lung condition… and then disappearing again. She’s definitely going to be part of my stand-up comedy show, brace yourselves (this isn’t a joke, but simply one of my many projects).

I should go get myself checked though: to make sure there’s still no cancer in my thyroid (lovely), to be told there are new problems with my teeth (can’t wait, dentists always seem to detect new issues, don’t they?), to get the remaining kidney stone extracted through the “natural” (but painful) pipes, or to get jabbed in the bottom for some of the vaccines that need to be redone every decade or so (although I’m never quite sure about that).

Since I couldn’t do much sports lately, I fell back to swimming in the Zürich lake which was thankfully warm enough until a few days ago when sub-20°C temperatures signalled the end of summer. My routine is always the same: swim multiple 300-metre loops marked out by the buoys, the waterproof mp3 player’s earphones firmly plugged in. Let’s see if that gets me to live as long as my beloved grandfather who’s turning 97 years old before the end of the year. Speaking of whom I’m increasingly anxious of him passing away, so I always try to give him a phone call now and then...

Proudly promoting the canton I live in

3. What I'm watching

3.1. Alone. I finally succumbed to watching TV series. I had always resisted because I don’t want to be hooked for hours on end, unless strong recommendations had compelled me to watch shows like The Handmaid’s Tale. Over the past couple of months, I binged on all seasons of the Alone show, including the Danish version (and its terrible translation: “where’s the fat” or “shut up man” for expressing joy): contestants try to survive in the wilderness for as long as possible with no assistance beyond the few items they are allowed to take; the person who stays the longest wins half a million dollars. Sounds simple enough, right? While I learned a lot about how to make snares, how to position a gill net, or how vital eating fat is, there’s no way I would have lasted more than a few hours, I’m just too clumsy and unable to sleep in the presence of the slightest noise. Maybe the single advantage I would have is that I wouldn’t be bored, I can always keep myself busy, inventing games, coming up with stories, or taking pictures (participants are obliged to self-document their adventure with cameras). More on this in an upcoming story that I’ll publish.

3.2. Mr. Robot. You could easily give that other TV series a pass, its action tends to be too slow, save from the rare fast-paced action episode. Some gems do sprinkle the episodes though: the interesting aesthetic framing of actors (during conversations, portraits are always shot with the actor’s face right along the edge of the frame, facing it, leaving plenty of space behind them – which is opposite to the conventional way of filming); the multiple references to Fight Club including through the choice of music (an interpretation of The Pixies’ Where is My Mind); the ambiguity and ambivalence of the characters and what happens to them, whether real or imagined; some of the dialogues such as the following one to which I can particularly relate to:

“People I loved, people I trusted have done their absolute worst to me. And for a long time, that's all I ever knew. (...) But then there are some people out there... And it doesn't happen a lot. It's rare. But they refuse to let you hate them. In fact, they care about you in spite of it. And the really special ones, they're relentless at it. Doesn't matter what you do to them. They take it and care about you anyway. They don't abandon you, no matter how many reasons you give them. No matter how much you're practically begging them to leave. (...) Because they feel something for me that I can't. They love me. And for all the pain I've been through, that heals me. Maybe not instantly. Maybe not even for a long time, but it heals. (...) There are setbacks. We do fucked up things to each other. And we hurt each other, and it gets messy, but that's just us, in any world you're in. (...) We're all told we don't stand a chance, and yet we stand. We break, but we keep going, and that is not a flaw. That's what makes us.”


In case you haven’t realised it, the main actor Rami Malek is the same one who played Freddy Mercury in the excellent biopic Bohemian Rhapsody released in 2018. In Mr. Robot, he plays a geek suffering from mental illness. Any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental...

4. What I'm listening to

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or if you’re older than 12 years old, you cannot not have heard of the latest dance challenge that is submerging the (TikTok) world, based on the beats of a South African song called Jerusalema:


Perhaps the most impressive of those dance interpretations is the following one:


If you can’t sleep at night, simply look at other dance challenge videos on the same tune, you’ll have a laugh, whether it’s Italian nuns and priests or Romanian firefighters.

5. What I'm writing

I can only pretend that writing is an important part of my life if I dedicate enough time to it. I’m far from the habit I had been able to form 7 years ago in writing an article or a short story twice a week. I need to find my mojo again… In case you missed them, here are some of the latest posts I published:

Unfinished drafts include a reflection on trade-offs in life (time vs. money, past vs. present vs. future, being passive vs. active, indoors vs. outdoors, etc.), thoughts on what I would do if I were alone in the wilderness, a critical review of the film Joker, and a bunch of other articles not worth publishing on the passing of time and why I don’t take antidepressants.

6. What I created

Don’t watch the following videos for their dialogues (there are none) but if you want to get a glimpse of the Swiss landscape where I’ve wandered about during the summer:

7. What I'm working on at Google

Like in most places around the world, it’s semi-mandatory work-from-home at the moment. After 6 months stuck at home, I am very slowly starting to accept that the situation is here to stay – I thus finally ordered a monitor just a few weeks ago; enjoying its comfort, I feel a little stupid for not having gotten it sooner. But I haven't figured out how to carry it to the public park just yet!

My work-from-”home” setup

One of the things I enjoy at work is giving talks. It’s of course more enjoyable to deliver them in person as I love playing with the audience (waking them up, quizzing them, making them laugh, interacting with them after the talk). But with proper equipment at home, I can still do a decent job. Watch those recent 15-minute talks to see if they inspire you in any way: address to Turkish, Afghan and Kazakh student organisers; keynote to Indian students.


8. What I'm working on on the side

8.1. Debating. My friend Dirk and I aren’t as diligent as we used to be, but we did release a few episodes over the past months. The format is always the same: we take turns in debating, and we don’t have more than 6 minutes each. Topics cover tech, business and politics:

8.2. Interview project. I’ve been pondering – and preparing – a long-form interview podcast, similar to what Joe Rogan is doing, with a few important differences. First, I would like to make it a truly international podcast as opposed to guests being exclusively residents/citizens of North America. Second, I’d have a standardised section with interesting questions e.g. what is the worst advice you’ve heard in your domain of expertise? Or, tell us about a time when you failed massively. Third, I’d possibly include a brief moment with more lightweight questions but still tied to a common theme e.g. the president’s interview: if you were president, what would be the first law you would sign? Fourth, I may start with a specific common characteristic for all guests of the show e.g. ex-Googlers – not too sure about that restriction though but the idea was to explore the interesting paths taken after a few years at Google. I’m not completely ready to undertake this massive project though, but if you have suggestions of people I could interview, you know where to find me.

8.3. 10xMBA. An old project of mine was training others online. Perhaps the world wasn’t quite ready for a fully-online experience then, or most importantly I didn't manage to generate enough awareness/interest. Yet the idea persists in the back of my mind and I’m not willing to give up on it yet. Once again, it’s a matter of time and priorities.

8.4. Coaching. In a similar fashion to training above, I spend quite a bit of time coaching others, in an official capacity within Google and a little bit outside of Google. Since I don’t enjoy selling my services (in this case at a price tag north of $500 an hour), I’ve been pondering offering coaching to a handful of people around the planet (one on each continent, half men, half women) with the only condition that they would agree to publicly document their progress: I’d like to then to create a mini-documentary of the entire experience. I’m thinking this could prove interesting for viewers. Believe it or not, there’s almost no videos of actual coaching on YouTube: I’m not talking about simulations but of coaching of real people with real problems. Perhaps people are too shy to expose their personal problems, who knows. If you know anyone who’d be willing to sign up for my original experiment, feel free to let me know – I'll be soon drafting up the exact requirements and conditions.

8.5. Swiss citizenship. All of the above is anyway pretty much on hold for another 2 weeks as I’m intensely gearing up for the very formal oral exam which will be testing my knowledge of federal, cantonal and municipal politics, history and geography. This is one of the many difficult steps in the process to acquire Swiss citizenship. It’s a very serious matter for the officials of my town who didn’t hesitate to turn down the application of a British citizen who had been living here for 20 years because he didn’t know the number of elected officials sitting on the town’s council (seven), the precise origin of raclette (it’s from the canton of Valais = Wallis in German), and couldn’t describe what the militia system in Switzerland was all about (basically that elected officials perform their duties on a voluntary basis, keeping their job on the side). That guy speaks perfect German, I don’t (at all) so I’m stressing quite a bit, practising as much as I can. It’s going to be the most expensive 45 minutes of my life! Even if it goes well, it will then take another 18 months for the subsequent steps to be completed.

Thank you!

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Thank you for reading. Stay healthy!

Sebastian