Post title image: The Invisible Years

The Invisible Years

In praise of diversions and inefficiencies.

Desk Notes

“This is how I spent 1963, quizzing pigeons, polishing my Valiant, writing letters.”

Shoe Dog, Phil Knight’s memoir, is methodical in telling the story of Nike’s rise. Every chapter in the book covers a single year in the life of the company.

The chapter called 1962 covers Knight’s round the world trip, his impulsive decision to fly to Japan, and the meeting with Onitsuka in which he managed to persuade them to make him their sole US West Coast distributor.

1963, however, is only a handful of pages long. He spends the entire year waiting for shipment of test shoes to make their way over from Tokyo, does an accounting course, and talks to pigeons in a nearby park. This is what year two of Nike’s life as a company looked like.

I was thinking about this when I saw Paul Graham tweet this chart he’d been emailed - of a startup’s revenue growth over half a decade (give or take).

It was only six years in when the needle began to move.

What a genuine hockey stick looks likeWhat a genuine hockey stick looks like

It raises the question as to whether those first six years were a waste of time. Whether the team could have just skipped to the ending, cracked the code, and avoided years of work.

The answer is, of course, no.

We see this a lot in startups, and the professional world more broadly.

Anxiety about time wasted. Fears about years being spent going in the wrong direction. Frustration that when something works, it could have worked even faster.

It’s strange, because when it comes to being  a writer or artist, stumbling around seems to be the default.

After decades of writing, Tessa Hadley’s first book was published when she was 46. On a recent podcast, when asked about the period before, she described it as:

“Lots of writing and failing. Lots of trying to do it, and getting it really wrong. It wasn’t a slow gradual buildup. I don’t know what happened to get that right.”

In 2008 a Norwegian writer called Karl Ove Knausgaard was desperate. His last book had been published - to moderate success - in 2004.

Since then nothing had happened, bar a buildup of frustration about his life as a father of three, punctuated by the occasional ask to be interviewed about life as a one hit wonder.

So he decided to sit down and write about his life. Six autobiographical novels. 3,600 pages. In the space of two years.

The books became a phenomenon. Half a million copies were sold in Norway alone. The books were translated into 22 languages.

Knausgaard bringing the Ashore energyKnausgaard bringing the Ashore energy

It seems that acceptance of this period - the wilderness, or as Deborah Levy described it in an interview once, the “invisible years” - is almost de rigueur for writers and artists.

But in a world of optimisation and efficiency, we have a feeling of constantly being on parade. It seems that the space for the invisible years - outside of the creative world - has shrunk.

Society is built on the ability of talented people to toil away, ignored and uninterrupted for years.

Think James Dyson in his shed working on thousands of different versions of the DC01, or David Ogilvy’s CV before founding Ogilvy & Mather (chef, researcher, spy, farmer), or the Airbnb founders living off ramen with a trading card folder full of maxed out credit cards.

Genuine image of Airbnb's pre-seed roundGenuine image of Airbnb's pre-seed round

But if we lose that - and replace it with a feeling that we’re always being watched - what is difficult, hard, and takes time, is ignored in favour of what is fast and easy.

This seems to me as one of the reasons the Forbes 30 under 30 list is a magnet for fraud.

And maybe even why - with the exception of maybe Airbnb - we haven’t really seen any companies founded after 2008 achieve the kind of size and market dominance achieved by  Facebook, Amazon, and Google.

And why OpenAI - the one that just might - was founded by someone who’d already succeeded in tech, and so had the permission to go away into the wilderness for a while: ChatGPT was launched seven years after OpenAI was founded.

I can imagine a world in which that pressure begins to go away - where an avalanche of AI generated content means that it’s easier for us all to become invisible and get lost in the digital forest.

The more hay in the haystack, the easier it is to be a needle.

But we’re not there yet, and to do so now still involves significant courage.

Tristram Shandy's four types of life, 1761Tristram Shandy's four types of life, 1761

So I think - yet again - it’s worth us all borrowing from the creative world, and living a little more like artists.

Sometimes taking the straightest and fastest path isn't just overrated, but impossible.

We should embrace our times in the wilderness - whenever they are. Be at peace with the disruptions and diversions.

And carve out the time for our very own invisible years.

aled@ashore.io

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