What you were never supposed to hear

Some invites are offered not because someone genuinely wants you to be there, but because they satisfy an obligation. You have to be seen inviting that person. In your head, you are crossing fingers, toes and eyes, hoping they say no.

And then the idiot says “sure, I’ll come.”


Did he not get the message? Did he not realise that he wasn’t supposed to accept? You now dislike this person even more.

I think ideas should be like that. Socially awkward. Showing up when they’re not supposed to.

A lot has been made of combinatorial wisdom. I have a section in my commons with the same name, and a fair amount of quotes and ideas. One of them is “progress lies at the intersection of ideas.” I don’t know who said that. Someone must of done.

How does this relate to someone who accepts an invitation that isn’t really meant to be an invitation? Well.

The things we learn are learned better when they are emotionally significant. Ideally, this means they come with a narrative or interesting story. For instance, I remember the main points of Drucker’s The Effective Executive because I was on a train out of London, surrounded by city workers who looked like they hated their life. These strange humans are called commuters.

The other side of combinatorial wisdom is the side you can’t plan. It is serendipity. It is fuzzy connection. You don’t know how or why it happens. All you know is that when you try to recall one thing, three others shoot to the surface.

Example. I’ve been reading Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. The author Manning Marable talks about Malcolm’s Message to the Grassroots speech, in which Malcolm says:

“A revolution is bloody. Revolution is hostile. Revolution knows no compromise. Revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. And you, sitting around here like a knot on the wall, saying, “I’m going to love these folks no matter how much they hate me.” No, you need a revolution. Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms, as Reverend Cleage was pointing out beautifully, singing “We Shall Overcome”? Just tell me. You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing; you’re too busy swinging.”

This brings to mind the work of Robert Greene, and his observation that power and influence goes, not to the one that starts a revolution, but to the one that finishes it.

Which in turn, reminds me of Peter Thiel’s last mover advantage. And also of Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, where we see that the greats, like Michelangelo, were not the first to create a new style or method, but were the first to bring it to the height of perfection.

This makes me think of Paul Erdos, the mathematician who observed that we should attack tough problems, even if we know we can’t fully solve them, because it may lay the groundwork for someone else to beat it in the future.

In Murakami’s 1Q84, there is a passage about a detective. “In time like these, Ushikawa didn’t like to have a set objective. He let his thoughts run free, as if he were releasing dogs on a broad plain. He would tell them to go wherever they wanted and do whatever they liked, and then he would just let them go.”

Perhaps this is how combinatorial wisdom works. When learning, reading, listening, observing, conversing, take pains to connect as many concepts and ideas as possible, and attach vivid stories. This, we do consciously. Then, like Ushikawa, when we have no set goal, when the nose and the bustle has died down, these connections re-forge, and new ones are created.

The point is, you don’t ask for these connections to show up. They come, like our unwanted guest, when they aren’t supposed to. Like when you tell someone you heard them singing in the shower. Asking them to sing for you is the best way to make sure they never do it again.

All you can do is stop. Listen.

And enjoy what you were never supposed to hear in the first place.