#7: A living order

Delight-surprise; an oak tree; silly hiring; the gift of books; soporific sounds.

Hello, I’m Vaughn Tan. You’re getting this email because you subscribed to my newsletter about uncertainty in work and daily life. The format is evolving and ideas may be only partially baked.


In 2012, we went to a friend’s restaurant in New Orleans for dinner. Midway, he sent us a bottle of Contadino 4 (a field blend of mostly autochthonous grapes) from Frank Cornelissen, who grows and makes wines on the volcano slopes of Etna in Sicily. (Contadino 4 was the 2006 vintage; we opened it in 2012.) It came with a note: “Drink this, no one else will want to buy it anyway.”

That Contadino 4 was a luminous pink, the color of rhubarb stems (and bottled in clear glass to reveal its outlandish color). Opened, it fizzed from slight refermentation in the bottle. It was ashy, with the scent of ripe crushed raspberries and apple cider and the flavour of basalt and cinders. These colors, flavors, and aromas were then (possibly even now) highly divisive. They challenge drinkers to push the limits of what they enjoy, what they define as wine. That Contadino 4 was alive, electric—its virtue was unexpectedness. For years after, I hunted Contadino assiduously because of this delight blended with surprise.

Every so often, maybe one in every 12-15 bottles, I would find one arresting like that first one was. But most bottles were not like that. Contadino was different in every vintage, and each bottle was a gamble. Sometimes light-footed, sometimes brooding, sometimes welcoming, sometimes obstreperous. The good uncertainty which produces delight-surprise is inextricably connected with bad uncertainty—when something is unexpectedly unenjoyable, possibly downright unpleasant. For every bottle of startling, scintillating Contadino, there would be a case or more of bottles that were acetic, or boring, or just weird. But a good one would change your mind about what to drink and why we should drink.

What made the early Contadinos great was Cornelissen’s willingness to not make a wine that was predictably the same from vintage to vintage or from bottle to bottle. In the early Contadinos, he exchanged the probability of failure for the possibility of greatness (most people pursue certain mediocrity to avoid potential failure). Being willing to embrace uncertainty in outcomes creates the possibility for that uncertainty to be the root of something new that is surprising and delightful.

Delight-surprise can only be created by humans. Only humans can take the raw material of the world and make brand new, unexpected, meaning out of it: meaning-making is an essentially human activity that seems beyond the capacity of most humans and is certainly beyond the current capacity of machines.

This is the thread running through outstanding and influential creative work in any genre: wine, cooking, TV, movies, books, music, art, architecture, law, accounting. As algorithms and machines increasingly sterilize whatever they dictate we consume, we hunger more—whether or not we admit it—for anything which reminds us of humanity and things which are alive.

An oak tree

From Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building:

The final shape of any one particular oak tree is unpredictable ... And a town which is whole, like an oak tree, must be unpredictable also. ... The fine details cannot be known ahead of time. We may know, from the pattern language which is shared, what kind of town it will be. But it is impossible to predict its detailed plan: and it is not possible to make it grow according to some plan. It must be unpredictable, so that the individual acts of building can be free to fit themselves to all the local forces which they meet. ... The people of a town may know that there is going to be a main pedestrian street, because there is a pattern which tells them so. But, they cannot know just where this main pedestrian street will be, until it is already there. The street will be built up from smaller acts, wherever the opportunity arises. When it is finally made, its form is partly given by the history of happy accidents which let the people build it along with their more private acts. There is no way of knowing, ahead of time, just where these accidents will fall. ... This process, exactly like the emergence of any other form of life, alone produces a living order.

Silly hiring

A reader emailed to share her recent experience of searching for a new job, saying that

  1. no one cares about her ability to lead teams in ambiguous and uncertain situations, and

  2. that all they’re interested in is her academic pedigree and domain-specific knowledge. 

Considering that she’s a senior R&D scientist in machine learning, these interviewers simply are failing to understand the right patterns on which to match.

In industries where innovation and creativity (both inherently uncertain) are strategically important, I predict increasingly strong returns to hiring that emphasizes finding facility with uncertainty and ambiguity. There appears to be no way to reduce the uncertainty mindset to a set of numbers or statistics; successful hiring for this quality is going to be impressionistic, but rigorously so (which of course goes against the current push for quantitative hiring through psychometrics, gamification, evaluation algorithms, etc).

Most importantly, it takes one to know one. The recruiters and hiring managers who understand the uncertainty mindset and are able to identify candidates who have it will eventually become the most valuable talent people.

Books to give away

Ritual gift-giving is the worst: ritual gifts are nearly always pointless, poorly-made tchotchkes picked up last-minute at your usual emporia of cynical consumerism. But a thoughtfully chosen book of quality can be a different thing entirely.

First, a plug for my book, The Uncertainty Mindset: About how the uncertainty mindset creates teams that innovate and adapt—but also about how high-end cuisine was transformed into an industry where continual innovation is essential for survival (similar to consumer electronics, internet businesses, fashion, music, etc today).

The Earthsea Cycle (Ursula le Guin): About freedom and power, how power changes personal identity and relationships, and the consequences of exercising power in a highly complex and interconnected world. Also about wizards, magic, and a richly detailed fantasy world. A challenging but rewarding read for children 8 and older—and with layers likely accessible only to adults.

Working Identity (Herminia Ibarra): For the person who is professionally successful, deeply unhappy, wants to change careers, and cannot bring him/herself to do it. I was given this book at Google and quit a month later. Gift this with discretion, bearing in mind that pulling off the band-aid is painful but often essential.

Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (Lawrence Weschler): A biography of the artist Robert Irwin. Through multiple interviews over decades, it documents how Irwin repeatedly works to gain skills which he then discards, and how that repeated throwing-away-of-work has given him the meta-ability to ask unusual questions in his art. One of the best books I’ve seen about learning.

The Survival of the Bark Canoe (John McPhee): An extended profile of a bark canoe maker. Also an exploration of the meaning of appropriate technology, the sophistication of craft technique, and the waters of the Maine lakes and rivers. Almost everything John McPhee writes is an unexpected masterpiece.

The Death of Picasso (Guy Davenport): A book of essays and stories tenuously interconnected. One motif is the exploration of what it means to be free—from time, social pressure, convention, aesthetic strictures, narrative form, expectations. A good book to dip into sporadically while in the countryside, and one which repays repeat reading.

The Raw and the Cooked (Jim Harrison): Collected essays about food and eating that are actually about aesthetics, place, and openness to unexpected experience. A muscular writing style that is distinctively American and mostly unfeigned (unlike nearly all food writing today).

On loop

A soporific counterweight to the frenzy at year’s end: Naturally, by J. J. Cale.

If you enjoyed this issue and found it useful, please share it with people who might like it too. You can reach me on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.