Restarting with open questions

PALACED #13: a bunch of thoughts from quarantine

Happy Sunday :)

I’m excited to be writing this newsletter again. Over the past few months, it’s been hard to muster up the energy to do anything but the bare minimum. Couple that with the heavy dose of anxiety that I get when publishing anything… recipe for disaster.

That said, the newsletter was a great outlet for me to start conversations with awesome people. “Blasting” my ideas to a huge audience was never the goal. I just wanted to share interesting ideas with people who also thought they were cool, and hopefully have a conversation about them!

I’d get texts from people saying “hey I loved that article you sent in this week’s newsletter,” and it’d make my day. I didn’t write the article, but I helped that person find something they enjoyed. And then we’d dive into the topic together. And that would spark an idea for what I’d read the next week. It’s a really rewarding cycle.

I’m saying all of this for two reasons. First, I want you to know that if you’re reading PALACED every week, I want to engage with you about these ideas. Email me, text me, DM me, whatever… but don’t be shy about sharing your thoughts. Prior to today, there were almost 200 people receiving this email every week. Now there are 30. That’s intentional. Sure, 1000 engaged readers would be amazing, but 30 engaged readers will give me plenty of motivation to keep this thing rolling.

Second, a lot of why I haven’t been writing was because I was thinking a lot. Not in the “big brain” kind of way, but more in the “I have no idea how to articulate how I feel about this” kind of way.

I wanted to share a few of the ideas I’ve been reflecting on during the pandemic:

“Those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly.”

This quote is from Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This is arguably the best book I’ve read in a couple of years, and a large source of inspiration for this week’s email.

Freire makes this statement in the context of the fight for liberation. If one is to be a revolutionary leader, he argues, they must constantly be reflecting and refining themselves — they must be aware of the flaws in their worldview, and adjust accordingly.

It’s funny how many times you hear this advice, yet depending on where you are in your life, it hits different every time. Michael Jackson made a hit song off the argument, and people still don’t listen.

This has become a foundational principle for me. In order to succeed in engaging with others — in any capacity, whether it be work or personal relationships or whatever — we must be continuously engaging with ourselves.

Doing good and being quiet

I’ve struggled with this for a while now. On one hand, there’s tons of evidence that “working in public” — publishing your thoughts, being open with your progress, getting as many eyeballs on your work as possible, etc. — is extremely valuable.

Again, take this newsletter. Keeping a journal is cool, but there’s a lot of value in sharing your ideas and allowing others to find you and engage.

At the same time, working in public can make your work — especially when your “socially good” work — feel kind of dirty. It blurs the line in your own head between whether you’re publicizing things for clout or doing work that genuinely benefits from being public.

The answer is usually a little of both, but Nadia Eghbal wrote about her struggles with this problem while running her grant program and it really hit home.

Personally, I’ve decided to keep more in-house than I have in the past, at least for the time being. As I’m writing this, I still don’t know whether that’s the right decision.

Thoreau’s “new economics”

In economics, we talk a lot about “opportunity cost”: the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. For example, the cost of spending my $1,000 on a new computer is not just the $1,000, but the opportunity cost of now not being able to afford — and thus, reap the benefits of — a new TV.

In Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism, he introduces Henry Thoreau’s idea of “new economics.” Thoreau argues that “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

Thoreau’s “new economics” asks us to apply the concept of opportunity cost to every aspect of our life.

Spending time scrolling through TikTok is not just bad because it’s killing your attention span, it’s bad because of the amount of life, our most valuable resource, that you could be spending elsewhere.

This idea gave me a headache. I completely agree with the premise, but I struggle to see how “life” is a metric that we can use to compare how we spend our time. But maybe that’s the point: to constantly be reflecting on whether we are spending our time in not just a valuable way, but the most valuable way.

And a few articles…

In the past, I’ve stuck to a pretty rigid format for the newsletter. Not anymore! Maybe I’ll settle on something in the future, but I want to play around with whatever format feels best for whatever I’m writing that week.

With that, here are a few stray articles that I think you should read:

A Critique From Above: Reflection on Revolts: A beautifully written take on the BLM protests from this past summer, from an Islamic academic perspective. “Lastly, we must reject the Western anthropocentric tradition that places ‘Man’ at the center of the universe – everything is about our rights, freedoms, and individual interests. Instead, we must renew the Islamic vision of God first, such that liberation is complete submission to Allāh. Practically, this allows us to be on the side of the oppressed, yet not speak from the inferior minority position.

Learning to Build Conviction: I probably could have made this its own “thought” in the newsletter, but it doesn’t sound as good coming from me. That said, my personal take is that optionality is great, but only if you have conviction. Otherwise, you’re paralyzed.

The Problem With Voting: Another Nadia Eghbal article. She wrote an incredible book about open source software this year that I think everyone should read, especially if you don’t work in tech. “Voting is a competitive game. Voting is a zero-sum game, meaning that whomever wins does so at the expense of someone else. As a result, voting promotes competition, not cooperation. Players might coordinate as a means of gaining an edge (“if you vote for X this time, I’ll give you Y next time”), but ultimately, “winning” the vote means beating someone else.”


That’s all for this week. Reply to this email if anything resonated with you. If you have a friend who might be interested in this newsletter, have them subscribe. And press that heart button at the top of the email!

See ya next Sunday,

Jihad