The Tao of Cézanne: Error is the Natural State of a Complex System.

The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition. (Malcom Gladwell, The New Yorker, October 13, 2008)

The Tao of Cézanne: Error is the Natural State of a Complex System.

It all started a few years ago, when I read this piece by Malcom Gladwell. Among a few other things in my life at the time, the realization that there was another way to experience my own artistic progression, that amounted to something far more nuanced than just saying "why not now?" to myself over and over again, was a big turning point for me. Maybe my approach to life, and to art, was not a three-decade streak of plausible failure, and the confidence that I had had, in the face of negligible success, was well-founded after all. What a relief. This concept - that late bloomers are a distinct personality type, with a very different path to achieving artistic self-sufficiency - led to my own development of what I call 'architects vs. gardeners.' This simple concept has helped me make sense of my entire life, and flipped the switch on my self-image from personal shame to a deep sense of pride. It may seem like a trick of language, but it turned my experience around completely: it is not that I was misunderstanding anything, except for the fact that I myself was systematically misunderstood. Now, finally, I no longer expect anyone to understand implicitly what I am doing, or why I deserve respect - quite the opposite: I move forward with the understanding that my way of creating art, and finding fulfillment, and building the life that I want is now, and will be forever, foreign and unspeakably strange to most people.

Gladwell uses the historical references of both Picasso and Cézanne in his essay, and that is of course where I got the name from. It seems very clear to me now that the art-world has been built and nurtured in the image of Picasso. In the modern context of short attention-spans, and sound-byte journalism, the forces of media have pandered to the easy story, the no-nonsense artist, the early riser. What the stories of Picasso and Cézanne can tell us about this bias is quite telling: some stories are not easy to eyeball; some careers are full of 'nonsense,' and white noise, right up until the point that they aren't. In some cases (like mine) decades go by before the artistic temperament is ready for prime-time, and there may be many factors involved. For example, I can speak from personal experience that the weight of personal depression, and incessant self-medication, can have a profound effect on the speed and quality of personal growth. Yet, it is not enough to say 'that should not be happening,' or just to point a finger, and say 'what a waste.' Because the truth is more difficult than that; and although anyone who had met me in my early years may well have felt that I was not worthy of respect, or even love, because of my personal issues with depression, and substance addiction, there were a few friends who stood by me, and that made all the difference. So the process of redemption can be complicated, and long-winded, and perhaps even misleading: until we can give each human case the attention to detail that it deserves, the snap judgements that we make as humans, and that society makes as a whole, are often going to be wrong. And in the worst cases, they can have long-lasting, deleterious effects on the potential for personal vindication with individuals that don't have access to a certain amount of emotional resiliency.

Why Picasso? The story and rise to fame of Picasso fits the impatient template of genius perfectly: he created his first few 'masterpieces' in his early twenties; and because of that, the popular conception that he was a talented artist, worthy of reverence, was plainly and permanently etched into the tabula of public opinion. Which is not to say that his level of talent was overblown, or that he didn't deserve to be lifted up at an early age, but rather that this kind of obviousness can create a detrimental system of comparison. Any child at school can relate to the soul-crushing effects of being graded on a curve: some kids learn faster than others, some kids have vastly different skill sets than others, and we need to be sensitive to creating self-fulfilling prophecies about personal worth, and talent levels, when we are using such a blunt instrument as raw test-scores to make up our minds about something. Somehow, we allow for this concept at the grade-school level but when it comes to adults, all is fair in the world of professional assessment. I can again speak from personal experience when I say that 'gardeners' - the Cézannes of the world - often do not get a fair shake in a system of comparison that undervalues soft skills like kindness, humility, and life-experience, and often gives too much weight to skill-sets that are easily taught. Because, for the same reason that Picasso can be a wonderful role-model for children and young adults who will be deeply motivated by prospects for massive early-career success, the slow-climb to eventual worldwide recognition by Cézanne is the perfect motivator for anyone who understands viscerally that they are not like Picasso in any way. It can often feel like there is only room for the Picassos, who are the ones that can process large amount of information, quickly, and immediately strike an air of confidence, whereas the Cézannes are more likely to take an iterative, multi-faceted approach to life, and exude a sense of self-deprecation as a matter of course. The two ideals are as opposite as Yin and Yang: the architect over-simplifies the matters at hand, and compensates for the lack of nuance with an overblown sense of self-importance and hard-nosed commitment, while the gardener over-complicates everything as an extension of their affinity for exploration, and uses self-doubt as a motivator for personal growth. The irony is that it is the gardener that is the true perfectionist, but it is the architect that can come across as one - and in the short-term, the architect gets more results: they plan, and they build; no iteration necessary. But in the long-term, the gardener can often create a body of work that is varied, and multidisciplinary, and complex in way that is just not possible to create in a high-stakes time-frame. Thus, Yin and Yang.

Now, after reading this, you might wonder to yourself if I am not a bit biased against architects, to which I would say, well, I married one; I have a deep respect for what architects are able to accomplish, and the singular energy that they bring to life, and relationships, and matters of achievement. So it is not a bias against anything, that I have, but rather a unique experience with, and opinion about, the way that gardeners interact with architects in terms of a one-on-one relationship. At worst, the rapport can devolve into a sort of master-and-slave situation, where the one belief-set is super-imposed over the other, and the ego-first architect envelops and subsumes the hesitancy and broad-mindedness of the gardener, as a repurposing of the instinct towards iteration into a single-minded perfectionism. This is exactly what happened to me in my technical career over the course of my last contract, which lasted almost ten years. It's not a bad fit, really, except that it is predicated on an immovable hegemony: the architect will never suffer that there is indeed another way to solve the problem (why would we change our minds now?), while the gardener will tire quickly from making gentle assertions about nuance that will not have enough force to pierce the veil of oversimplification. Over time, the gardener will feel micro-managed in a holistic sense, by the limitations of the mandate itself, while the architect will resent the need for what seems like useless interaction: just do it, I don't care how!

The gardener goes slowly so that in moments of hardship, there are things to fall back on; the architect marches boldly into the unknown and looks for a heroic expert to save them in a pinch. Yet, gardeners often cannot become experts in the time-frame that architects demand - such is the nature of technical debt: you pay it off as you go along, or you run the risk of sudden bankruptcy. And on and on.

The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition. (Malcom Gladwell, The New Yorker, October 13, 2008)

So, what does that look like in practice? Let me introduce you to an old acquaintance of mine: Josh Merkel (the name was changed, ever so slightly). We met at the office in Santa Monica, when the company I had built a reporting platform for was in the process of being bought by a VC-firm from New York. In the room were 3 consultants from New York in black suits, my old boss Rob who had a foot out the door already - his fortune was already made - and me. I had no idea what I was in for. There had been some discussion around the office about some visitors in weeks past. We had just finished pivoting away completely from the video-based product we had been building that consisted of a massive collection of hand-crafted, in-depth videos that explored the creative process of film-making, with interviews from directors and cinematographers all over Los Angeles - years before YouTube, and unfortunately way ahead of its time. I remember everyone had a fresh cup of coffee, we were discussing upgrades to the OLAP system I had built, and then all of a sudden: I would like to introduce you to our new CFO, Josh Merkel!

I was in shock, a little bit, because no one had prepped me for this. Josh was all smiles. The background: he was from Yahoo!, he had an MBA, him and Rob were old buddies from working at LAUNCH Media together. He was here to take the helm, because Rob was off to start a new company. Great. Josh immediately had strong ideas about everything. He was already using a phrase that soon became like nails on a chalkboard to me: it seems to me that it should be easy to...

It seems to me that it should be easy to integrate our external data feeds into the main pipeline without too much trouble.
It seems to me that Krister should be able to use the code he already has to solve this new problem, without too much trouble.

Aaah. I can't even. What quickly emerged as the new work dynamic was Josh consistently asking for system exceptions - custom data feeds and customized reporting behavior, mainly - without any understanding of how that might impact the maintainability of what was already a complex system. The customization requests kept coming in, year after year, and there was never any attempt to allocate more resources to the process of regression testing, or to make efforts to update existing functionality. I kept asking for more resources and never got them. Complexity went up, resources stayed flat, and because I couldn't bill extra hours per my contract, the only thing I could do was spend more of my free time putting out fires. After a few years, even that wasn't enough.

I wrote a blog post on Medium once, which I quickly deleted, which explored the folly of letting a CFO act as a CTO. It's like letting the waiters run the kitchen - fine for the waiters, bad for the chefs. Sadly, I was the only chef, in a room full of waiters. I stuck around for years, but in the end, after being stabbed in the back one too many times, I moved on. If I had been then the person that I am now, it would have been quite clear to me that Josh was an architect - which by the way, often runs hand-in-hand with narcissism - and that I was just a good target. Nothing personal. But having been there first, and being the sole contributor for the entire tech stack, it was very hard to walk away without feeling persecuted. Why me? I only built the floor you are standing on.

Anyway, that was the last job I ever took as a software developer. Now that I can see myself as having been a gardener, being crushed under the weight of Josh's architect ego, it allows me to move on in a spiritual sense. This was meant to be: I used to love writing code - SQL and Ruby were my favorites - but I love songwriting and blogging much more than that. Maybe, if we keep our eyes open, we find a way through the darkness to the things that matter. I was deeply unhappy in that job - but I didn't know that at the time, because I didn't know what happiness really looked like. I thought I was lucky, and in a sense I was. I found my wife while working there, I saved some money, I developed skill-sets that I use to this day. But I also felt deeply unfulfilled, and now I can see that I was consumed by a smoldering sense of self-hatred - for putting up with Josh, for being powerless to push back in any meaningful way, and for being under-appreciated. When the company was sold, 3 millionaires were born - I know, because as a shareholder, I had to sign off on the paperwork. I was not one of them.

The corporate system of feedback is made for ego-first, conflict-keen narcissists - and if you stay inside that world long enough, you will either become that, or hate yourself for not doing so. Finding the strength to move on from a bad relationship is always hard. But sometimes, it is the only way to grow. And I will take personal growth over money every time. You might not agree - but that's probably because you are an architect. And in that case, I'm not writing for you - I write for the gardeners in the world, that feel persecuted, and don't know why.


Krister Axel

Paris, France. Madison, Wisconsin. Los Angeles. Ashland, Oregon. 1 gorgeous wife, 2 amazing kids, + 5 albums later, Krister is ready to write about his favorite thing: music. Spotify username: AIO

Ashland, Oregon Krister Axel Krister Axel

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