Transcript of Currents 029: Vance Crowe on the “Well-Actually” Graph

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Vance Crowe. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Vance Crowe. Vance is a communications consultant who has worked for corporations and international organizations around the world. Vance helps organizations realize why the public doesn’t agree with their perspective and offers new ways to communicate effectively, resolve disagreements and build rapport with critics and stakeholders. Vance is the former director of, get this, Millennial Engagement, for an hour, really get this, Monsanto. That must’ve been a doozy. Welcome, Vance.

Vance: Hey, thanks for having me, Jim.

Jim: Yeah. This is a good thing. Love to have you on the show. Before he played whack-a-mole for Monsanto, he worked as a Communication Strategist for the World Bank, he is in the Peace Corps stationed in Kenya, Communications Coordinator at an NPR station and was a deckhand on an eco-tourism ship that traveled around the Western Hemisphere. All kinds of cool shit. Vance also has a podcast, the Vance Crowe Podcast, and I’ve appeared on it. And Vance’s one of the most astute interviewers I’ve run across in my career as a podcast guest. And as he and I were just joking, it’s actually a lot more fun to be the guest than it is to be the host. He clearly does a good job and is well prepared. So his podcasts are the first quality.

Jim: So today, we’re going to talk about a theory of idea propagation that Vance has, which he calls Well-Actually. It’s kind of interesting as people listen to podcasts now, I sometimes use military metaphors. And in the military level, between tactical and strategic, there’s area called operational. And I would describe Well-Actually as operating in the operational zone. So it’s not tactics, what words to use, it’s not strategy exactly, what’s the big picture we’re trying to accomplish, but it’s in between the two. So, again, welcome and tell us just a little bit about your life at Monsanto and how that led you to see this idea of Well-Actually, and then we’ll dig into it in more detail, but first, Monsanto and how you came up with the idea.

Vance: Well, if you look at my history, it was not obvious that I would go to Monsanto as a job. I’d been a Peace Corps volunteer, I had run a camper inner city kids, I’d been on an eco-tourism ship. So when I had the chance to interview at Monsanto, I actually only took the interview because I thought to myself like, who doesn’t want to see inside of North Korea. And so I took the interview and it was about seven hours of panel after panel after panel. And one of the most fun things you can do in the entire world is interview for a job that you don’t want, because you can say whatever you want, it doesn’t matter. And so the whole time, they would ask me a question about like, what management style do you prefer? And what’s kind of your team workings, the way that you work with teams? And every time I’d be done, I’d be like, “Why are you poisoning farmers in India? And why are you suing farmers to death?” And so the whole time, it’s just me battering them with questions.

Vance: And after I got through the seven panels of interviews, at a place that I had imagined was going to look like an 80-story building and everybody would be wearing black suits and matrix style sunglasses. When in reality, it was people with ponytails and sweaters and just regular people living in St. Louis, Missouri.

Vance: So the woman that had been interviewing me or guiding me through this came back into the room after the seven panels, and said, “Do you have any questions for us?” And I smirked, and I said, you’re hiring for this position, Director of Millennial Engagement and nobody’s ever done a job like this representing two millennials. One of probably the most hated companies in all of the world, how do you plan on training this person? And she said something that changed my life in that conversation, she said, “Well, whoever we hire, we’re going to train depending on their skillset. That’s a really big thing at Monsanto. And since you’ve been so curious, I think what we’ll do is we’ll line up a list of 50 people from throughout the company and let you sit down with each one of them for an hour, chemists, biologists, geneticists, farmers, attorneys, and you can ask them anything you want. And then when you’re done with that list of 50 people, we’ll sit down and we’ll figure out what you do and don’t know. And then I’ll write you another list of 50 people.”

Vance: And a light bulb went off in my brain and I realized, oh my God, they are handing me an opportunity that they could not possibly understand how a person like me could wield this opportunity, because I’m going to get to run around and ask anyone anything that I want. And if I discover that they are as evil as everyone says that they are, then I’m going to go write the greatest tell-all book of all time. And if they’re not, well, then you’ve maybe just discovered one of the most important problems in the history of civilization, which is we’re growing food more bountifully than we ever have before. And yet, people are so angry and so upset about what’s going on that the two can’t even meet, they’re afraid to meet in public. And so I decided, I’m going to do everything I can. I flipped in almost an instant from not wanting the job to thinking this would be a tremendous opportunity. So that’s how I came to Monsanto.

Jim: That’s cool. One of my best friends from college worked his whole career at Monsanto, a guy named Wayne Bugg, and hilariously enough, despite being named Wayne Bugg, he was an expert in herbicide. In fact, he always claimed he helped invent Roundup. And so before the show, I just searched Wayne Bugg Roundup, and sure enough, his name is on the patent. Whoa, that’s old school. Okay. Wow. That’s old school. And he was a definite hippie. I mean, this boy was a real hippie back in college, if you know what I mean in 1975. And he worked at Monsanto and always said it was a great place to work. Ended up with a pretty big job, running some section of the labs in Indianapolis.

Vance: Well, the company has such a long history. People don’t realize that L-DOPA was patented there. They did all sorts of edge of chaos ideas, where they were pushing the envelope. And a lot of it had to do with how they were structured. They really would let teams just run and try and do innovation in a way that I would say there’s probably no modern corporation of any size that is doing this sort of innovation now the way that Monsanto was. I think there were a few other companies out in the world at the time doing it, but it was a time for much more innovation within large corporations at the time.

Jim: Indeed, there’s still some, like 3M is still famously good at that. And they’ve turned it into a process where you let people run for quite a while and then you decide whether you want to shoot the puppy or not. Eli Lilly, I understand, until fairly recently was that way as well, but you’re right, less and less of that kind of institutional free thinking. I had the great fortune to spend a day and a half at AT&T Bell Labs back before AT&T got broken up and before it basically got turned into a development shop and there was amazing people that were allowed to screw around for their whole career on the portfolio theory that if you have several 100 really smart people screwing around for their whole career, some of them will create things of immense value. I mean, little things like the transistor.

Vance: Absolutely. But you got to have some, there’s some magic that goes on there that you have to be able to cultivate that, because right now, I think in a lot of corporations, there’s a lot of people spending their whole lives, but they’re not inventing anything.

Jim: Yeah. It’s quite an issue. In fact, I ran industrial lab for a while one of my business units when I worked for Thomson. Now Thomson Reuters, that we started up called Thomson Labs. And we had, I guess, about 40 people eventually working on applied and a little deeper than applied stuff, but we certainly were not able to do the bell labs or the Xerox PARC thing. And we had very specific gates on projects and people could work for maybe two years on something, but if it looked like a dry hole, they had to move on to another project. So it’s definitely an art form, try to figure out how to do innovation at a big corporation. And I just finished reading Matt Ridley’s new book, thanks, Vance, by the way, for the introduction, his new book on innovation. And he makes that point again and again that innovation is kind of this strange and slippery process that it’s hard to can.

Vance: Yeah, Matt Ridley is one of those people that’s, when you actually get to talk to him, he’s so warm and so open-minded that I’m so glad he’s writing books, everything from genome to innovation books, because he just has a way of capturing the spirit of how things actually get created, and not in a romantic way, but in a very pragmatic, practical way.

Jim: One of his early books was very important in my own intellectual formation. That’s a one called The Red Queen, where he goes into the dynamics of evolutionary competition and not just in biology. And I think it primed me well for another very important book called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett, where he, again, takes Darwinism from its biological roots and applies it in all kinds of other domains. And that the evolutionary lens has been one that I used relentlessly since the late ’80s, early ’90s, something like that. And those were the two key books, and I’m looking forward to having Matt on the podcast here. I think I’m doing the interview in mid-March, and it’ll be out sometime around the 1st of April. And again, it was Vance who set that up. So thanks. So let’s now set the stage. What did you see in Monsanto that was the precursor to your innovation, your aha about the Well-Actually?

Vance: Well, one of the first things that I realized is at a place filled with engineers, whether they’re chemical engineers or people that are working in understanding how bugs work or genomics, that everybody had whiteboards. And so this started me down a process of any time I started explaining an idea, I would draw it. And because I’m meeting with 50 people and then another 50 people, I think I did about seven different lists.

Vance: I never stopped the whole time I was working there, I would go in and I would talk about just ideas and I would draw them and eventually, and I can never point to exactly when it happened, it started to manifest that I was saying, why is it that the public knows absolutely if we just walked out on the street in any city in the United States, it would be so easy to find somebody that thinks that they know a great deal about Monsanto, a great deal about how glyphosate works, a great deal about how dangerous this place is, and yet, if you’re in another place like Monsanto or some of the other big ag companies or talk to any farmer, most farmers in the United States, not any farmer, certainly there are farmers that have problems with Monsanto, that they have a totally different way of thinking about it.

Vance: And this got me thinking about how ideas diffuse out into society and why is it that sometimes you have an idea that only a few people know and believe in and sometimes you have an idea that everyone seems to know and they don’t ever know where it came from. So this developed out into a graph, where we were trying to say, how do ideas diffuse out into society? Because if you wanted to change the way that people viewed an idea, where would you go to spend that time? And it’s actually really difficult for me to just do this in audio, because I spent so much time drawing it, but we can imagine on the vertical axis that we have all ideas have some discreet amount of value, and you can put that against the number of people that know it on the horizontal axis.

Vance: And if you imagine like the company is hacking away through the genome of corn and ping, they discover something totally new and novel, the number of people that know that idea is really, really low, but the value of knowing that idea is really, really high. And now, if we think about that discrete piece of information like a stock tip, we know that as more and more people know about the idea, the value of knowing that idea first goes down. So the value of being able to tell somebody about it and have it shocked them every time that scatters out further and further.

Vance: And so I often would talk about, when I would get a phone call from my mother and she’d be like, “Vance, Vance, I heard this thing on CNN or Fox or MSNBC.” To my mother, that was the cutting-edge of information. That was where news happens. But any time that you talk with somebody that’s on social media, or maybe a little bit more savvy, they would say like, there’s slow lumbering organizations. By the time they get news, many, many people already know about that idea. And one time I was presenting this to an old grain trader named Jim Tobin, and I was doing it on a whiteboard and he stopped me and he took the marker out of my hand. And he said, “You’re right, Vance, and Monsanto, we respond to ideas out here.” And he drew all the way out on the horizontal axis, showing very few, the value of the idea was gone, but many, many people knew about it.

Vance: And this struck me because I started thinking like, okay, if you want to try and change the way that people feel about the value of an herbicide or the value of GMOs, if you try and get that idea injected into the masses right down where CNN is or Fox, you are competing, not just with getting them to let you talk about this idea, but you’re competing with every single other person that wants my mother’s attention or everyone that’s like my mother’s attention. And so we started to say, well, what we need to do is go up that graph. And the further that you go up before CNN, the smaller the audiences get, but the deeper with which they look at things.

Vance: And I think your audience would be really a great example of this, but you could say, well, from CNN, maybe you have Vice News, and then you go up a little bit further and there’s a smaller audience and maybe you have Intelligence Squared, the PBS debate program. And then you maybe go up a little bit further and you have the Reddit science thread. And as you go up, the audiences are getting smaller, the depth of which they want to know things gets deeper.

Vance: So we wanted to figure out how do you get up? How high do you have to get up? And I would always mark a point, and it’s arbitrary. It’s where a Pareto distribution makes its break point. I would draw this line on it. And I would say, this is the point when you’re standing around at a party and everybody’s talking about the news of the day, what’s going on, what they think about something, and there’s always that one person that’s waiting for a pause in the conversation. And I think, Jim, you might be this person, and they’re waiting for a break. And then they break in and they go, well, actually, and then they update you on whatever it was that everybody was talking about because you had information from further up the graph.

Vance: So my thought process and my goal became to be, we don’t have the budget to change culture, but if we wanted to get an idea to go out into society, where could we go up the graph? Which groups, which clusters of people could we get to that are small, but are looking at things deeply that we could show our perspective? And if we were able to convince them based on having more in-depth conversations than just trying to run ads or trying to blast out information down on CNN, then those people would derive value out of having that changed position and putting that out into the world. So thus began the Well-Actually Graph and really the pursuit of the next five years of my life.

Jim: Yeah, very slick. I mean, it struck me immediately, as soon as you started telling me roughly about it. And then I said, [inaudible 00:16:49] writing goddammit. And you did. And I’ve found it very interesting. And of course, one obvious questions when you’re thinking, as I talked earlier, this strikes me between tactical and strategic, it’s operational, how do you get the most bang for your input? And you want to be the guy at the root in the party that says, well, actually. And you’re right. When I was an obnoxious 35 year old, I was that guy a fair often. Less so these days, I’ve learned at least a little, a modicum of social graces, but it obviously begs the question, at which party, right? Because it’s a recursive, essentially fractal definition to say you want to be the well-actually guy at a party. To figure out how to actually execute on that vision, you also have to pick what party. What can you say about that?

Vance: Well, to begin, the core reason I needed to come up with this hypothesis is, I did not want to work with the public relations firm that was hired. I felt like the public relations firms make money by trading down the graph. So they come and they get a client that pays them and then they go sell some part of that money to advertisers down the graph. It is a huge financial spend, but it’s not very sophisticated. And truly, that’s not what I think is a way that makes an impactful change. You could probably propagandize your way out of people thinking that Monsanto was bad, but how stable is that. Once somebody decides they want to spend more money than you, then now you’re in a war that will never end of attrition, where you’re just spending money in the PR firms, and the media agencies are making a killing.

Vance: So what I was trying to do was to create a model where I could get the executives at the company to understand I am not going to play the game by the rules that everybody else is playing them by. And this model opened up people’s minds to say, that’s a worthwhile innovation that will allow you to do. What then it also allowed me to do was I said, when I came in there, burn the ships, I don’t want any of the PR people looking over me, I don’t want a budget that says we’re going to sponsor a conference and we’ll get to hang our banner up there. And then we’ll get to speak for five minutes. If the world views you as North Korea, then you don’t have to pay to get on stages. All you have to do is say, I will answer any questions that people have. And then you start becoming a gravity, where people say, “Well, I can derive value out of bringing this person here because I have a whole bunch of people that have a whole bunch of questions for Monsanto.”

Vance: And so my first, operationalize that the actual thing that I had to do was learn literally everything I possibly could about agriculture with no ego. I wanted to try as hard as I could not to get on team Monsanto, but to get on team, like what is the thing that I should know and understand? Which is what led me to Matt Ridley, reading Genome, and then the Red Queen, and then sitting down with scientists and actually studying enough of chemistry to be able to understand what happens to glyphosate when water hits it, and how does it break down and what are the actual problems going on in farming?

Vance: And so once I had that knowledge and I could speak with a level of comfort, then the more that I would put out there, that I would come and answer questions. Now you’re starting to say, what is the most valuable, what we call tribes at the time? If you think of that, Well-Actually Graph is the peak of a mountain. And you’re actually describing that there are infinite numbers of peaks, what are the right peaks for you to go up to? What are the tribes that you can find? And to your point of those, what party do you want to go to can become recursive.

Vance: So I just did what Kenneth Stanley, the AI researcher called novelty search. I was really interested in finding who is most interesting person that will give me an invitation to come speak. And from there, that would be get more interesting invitations. And the more that I opened myself up to people that had really probing questions, the more that that forced me to understand what I was saying and what I thought and what other people’s perspectives were. And so I could actually be lifted up that graph. And so all I was really trying to do by making that graph was make a compelling enough thing to say, we’re going to let you free from the PR company. And it worked quite well for that.

Jim: That’s an interesting meta strategy to find the right party. And that’s cool. And, of course, the other one you have is because you had committed not to spend big bucks with a PR firm and flush them down the toilet, which is what happens to most of that money. And my experience, my long experience wasting money with PR firms. I suppose whether you made it explicit or not, you were probably also doing some form of unconscious calculus on return on investment.

Vance: Well, and you’re probably pretty aware of this, but it took me a little while to figure out that I actually, when I burned the ships and gave the money back, I was actually giving back quite a bit of power that I didn’t understand that your budgets are what determine who gets invited to what rooms and who gets to move things up and who gets more resources and more access to the people above you, because everybody’s managing their little fiefdoms. So in the one hand, it was a very good strategy in that I didn’t have somebody looking over me and I didn’t have to have that return on investment immediately. But the downside was that you could be deeply marginalized. What ultimately happened was by being marginalized, people just forgot that I was doing what I was doing, and I would come back with big results.

Vance: So one thing we did that really worked well was we did one of the first Reddit AMAs in the science thread before anybody else was doing it. But because I wasn’t using the PR firm, the PR firm would always be like, “Let’s get this executive in here, because we’ve done media training with them. And we’ve spent all this time and energy getting them ready to go out on the speaking circuit.” I was able to find the scientists that was the best at teaching me how genetics worked and what the problems farmers were facing. And so I was actually in the trenches and could find a person to do a Reddit AMA that could do it at the level that people that were in that tribe wanted to hear it. It wasn’t corporate speak.

Vance: So I placed a big trade-off, but then by doing that Reddit AMA, I actually got more views for longer than our Super Bowl ad. So suddenly, I had dealt myself into the game because I was competing with somebody with about $3 million worth of ad budget. And I had done mine for free for teaching a guy how to use Reddit and going out for beers with him a few times before we did it. And now I adult myself into a whole different game, but I didn’t realize how big the risk was when I was the ships.

Jim: Yeah, you didn’t know the institutional bureaucratic game of business, right? Always find some excuse to increase your budget. Right. If I’ve been doing that one, I would say 37 and was fairly wise in the way of bureaucracy, I might have said, yeah, fuck the PR firm. But I want to use that money to hold concerts or something. I wouldn’t have given the money back. I’d forgot damn sure. But it was interesting, they say you burn the boats, it forces you to opt to do that economic optimization. As you said, I got the equivalent of a Super Bowl ad for a few beers and whatever, however much, excessive amount they’re paying you and your salary and travel budget, you are able to generate as much power. Vance, you also mentioned communications training. I’ve been sent to communications training a few times in my corporate life. Fortunately, it didn’t take.

Vance: I bet you are a PR nightmare.

Jim: Oh my God, wait till you go, everyone will see something scary. I find one of the C-SPAN when I appeared before Congress and basically did my imitation of Dr. Strangelove to scare the fuck out of them. I had these PR folks training me for like two days beforehand. And halfway through the final day, I said, fuck you all, get the hell out of here. And I called in my head of litigation, who was a choice asshole, makes me look like a nice guy. And so I said, why don’t you prepare me as if I’m a murder defendant who’s guilty? And so we proceeded from that perspective.

Vance: Well, oh, go ahead. How did it go?

Jim: It went great. Put it this way. Three different congress critters called the Commerce Department, who we were in a life or death negotiations with, and said, you better settle with this guy. He’s fucking nuts.

Vance: When we bring up PR firms, this is something that I’ve been talking about more and more lately, because I think I didn’t realize that not everybody knew this, but I have a hypothesis that a significant portion of the world is run by college party girls that got into PR firms. And they’re running large portions of executive thinking around how to interact with the public, which is what guides companies to make what seem like completely irrational decisions to people that are living up the graph in any sort of way. But it’s because they are the ones that went into PR firms and they spent a few years there. And their guidance is really surrounded by the bubble that they’re in, which is often Instagram and things that are down the graph, things that everybody is doing right now.

Vance: So the only advice that they can ever give an executive is maybe what was true yesterday, or at best, earlier today, but they can’t think forward. They’re not thinking about what will the world look like? What should I be? How should I be orienting myself? And they have way, way more sway in corporate America than most people realize. I mean, just look at how corporations are choosing to advertise now and know that that is guided, I think in a lot of ways, by people that they don’t understand physics or engineering or philosophy or sociology, they understand how to create good font types and how to be clever and cute right now on social media. And they’re not forward-thinking. And I think executives just don’t have that wide of a view of what else is going on in the world. And so they rely on that advice.

Jim: Yeah. I made that mistake once, but I got over it by the time I was about 28. I realized that these people are hand job artists, but always [inaudible 00:27:34].

Vance: You’re willing to say things I’m not willing to say.

Jim: That and big ad agencies. Those are two of my, it’s generally a sign that a person is a fucking idiot when their company is spending lots of money with a really big ad agencies, as opposed to the sharp, aggressive ad agencies or the big brand name, top five PR firms. They’re just getting lots of stroking for their money, but not much else.

Vance: I totally agree with this. Jim, this is music to my ears is so rare that I found people that think like you do.

Jim: Yeah, I fortunately had, I have a weird mind. I never accept the conventional wisdom around me. And in fact, it’s probably a fault more than a virtue is my starting stance is whatever the conventional wisdom is, is wrong, right? H. L. Mencken is my hero. And so I think I just come from it constitutionally, that whatever the conventional wisdom, it must be ridiculous. But the amazing thing is I often find that I’m right on deeper investigation, more often right than wrong.

Vance: Yeah. I think that the one thing that I had going for me when I was at Monsanto is that I didn’t really actually need the job. I mean, I could leave at any time and go do something else. And so as long as they were letting me live out my intuitions, I was good with that. It was me trying to work on a problem that I thought was really, really important. And so it was very fun for me, but I can’t imagine going back and doing it again. I mean, I had freedom there that I don’t think I will ever get in a normal organization.

Jim: Well, you never know. You made a very important point. And this is when I have a little presentation I used to give to second year MBA students, of all the weird things, called my Famous Career. And one of the big takeaways was I always felt like I didn’t give a shit if the company’s fired me or not. I always was arrogant and figured I could make more if I went somewhere else, did something else, and it would take me three to get a job. And so I always approached work in corporate America that way. And amazingly, I never got fired. I probably came close once or twice. But because I was adding so much value in my contrarian ways, they always tolerated me. In fact, promoted me at a ridiculous rate. And so I strongly recommend that to people. And the key to that is keep your burn rate real low.

Jim: I mean, there was a time when I was a pretty big wig in big corporate America, where I was living on about 12% of my salary. And that didn’t even count the ridiculous bonuses I got. And so, unlike some of my peers, I was one in particular who was making a slightly, even more ridiculous salary than myself. And this all bets somehow figured out how to live on 110% of that. I don’t know how he did that. So he was always in financial trouble despite making a truly ludicrous sum of money. So first rule of if you are going to, for whatever reason, play the corporate game for a while, and I did for a number of years, just make sure you live way below your means and maintain the aggressive and obnoxious attitude that if the bosses fire you, they’re probably doing you a favor.

Vance: 100%. I mean, that served me very well throughout my life. There were other times when I had a low burn rate, but also had a low income rates.

Jim: [inaudible 00:31:06] there too. I’ve been there too. We talked about that. You definitely don’t want the burn rate get too high too soon or frankly, at all. Some other reasons, we can talk about that some other time. So what other examples do you have from the world of real life, of being smart about moving up the graph?

Vance: That’s a good question. One of the things that we realized about going up the graph is that you want to find people that when they realize that the way that they were thinking before was not correct, or could be more nuanced or could have, you want to find people that are then highly motivated to go out and talk about it. So one function of the Well-Actually Graph is you can’t just, that’s only a metaphor, it can’t be all of this happens at parties. You need to find people that are going to say, oh my gosh, I didn’t know that I had been fooled or I didn’t realize how limited my perspective was.

Vance: And one of the tribes that I sought out was at the time called the skeptics tribe. Now the skeptics tribe has moved in the direction of what they’re all about now, but when the time when I encountered them, it was right around the time when Penn and Teller were doing that show called Bullshit!, where they would take a topic and they would find what does everybody believe? And let’s go interview the people that are selling cure-alls or special magic mattresses, and then let’s pull the curtain off to show how far they are away from the science or from the truth. And then they would take that delta and they would make it funny. So people were entertained and they liked it. And this actually grew an entire movement. So there’s people that have podcasts and they have conventions and they get together and they try and debunk pseudoscience.

Vance: So I went out and tried to find people that had podcasts and that were getting up on stages at different events and saying, hey, I’m not selling you anything. You can ask me any question you want. I’m not coming with brochures. I’m not going to try and tell you to check out our website or any of that stuff. But if you want to ask me any questions, either I can answer them or I can give you access to the guy that actually created genetically engineered cotton. So if you have a challenge about the way that it was handled in India, ask the guy that was actually doing it. And this met it out many, many things that were unpredictable.

Vance: So this is kind of an edge of chaos strategy. You’re doing things and you’re trying to kick off some sort of cascade and you don’t know what will happen. So then they would start writing blogs, do lots of podcasts. And then you see those ideas jump from one place to another. So you could start to see that it wasn’t just the podcast that we talked directly to, but the people that were listening to that podcast, then running podcasts and talking about it. And that cascade is what generates ideas to move down into society.

Jim: That’s another lens to think about what parties to go to. Go to parties that are full of people with big mouths, right?

Vance: Yeah. I developed the criteria over time once I had had a novelty search that was large enough to let me see which ones are working and which ones aren’t. And what I started to say is we want people that are building things. We want people that they’re not just talking, they’re putting out papers, they’re making videos, they’re actually creating software or hardware. They’re doing, they’re building things. Then we wanted to have, they have to have a reason to understand what’s going on, like why would they care that the characterization around genetically engineered crops may not be fully accurate? Well, we want to find groups of people that they also maybe have a technology that could come under fire, and they too want to understand the mechanisms out there about groups that are stacked up to shoot against you that are paid to be environmentally, to get under the environmental halo and shoot at your technology.

Vance: And then finally, we wanted to find people that wanted to be in the fight. They could derive value by arbitrating information and that they felt passionate about doing it. Then once you have that as a target, then by that point, my invitations to go speak had accelerated so much that I couldn’t say yes to all of them. So it stopped the calculus of me having to pay for my travel and people would pay me to travel. And then I had to start saying, okay, how will I decide where I go? And it just took, you hit a tipping point and once you hit it, then almost all of the work is done for you. You then now have to stay alert and figure out what am I going to do next?

Jim: Wow. That’s great. So really that sweet spot was where being the well-actually guy at the party propagated out because the people in the party were connector types, basically, something like that.

Vance: Yeah. Or that you want it to be the guy that the well-actually, you wanted to be on the podcast that the well-actually guy listen to, or maybe the podcast of the podcast that the guy heard that was the well-actually guy, because the further you go up the graph, the less you’re competing for people’s attention. The downside is you have to show up and legitimately know what you’re talking about, because when you go up the graph, those people, they don’t want the sociopaths and the mops, they’re messing up their tribes. So they’re ready to shiv you if you show up in your pretend, or you’re not saying the right thing, not correctly articulating yourself. And so the higher you get up, the less effort you have to do to get those ideas to propagate.

Jim: On the other hand, as you pointed out, again, if you’re trying to actually maximize your impact per unit of output, there’s also a danger of going too far up the graph. Why don’t you tell us about that?

Vance: Well, that’s a 100% as well. I became completely obsessed, you and I talked about the Santa Fe Institute. So I became completely captured by the idea of complexity and how do ideas spread through networks. And you can get to a point where you’re saying, I’m going to go to this place, the Santa Fe Institute, not among them, but other places where you’re saying, this is so niche, and these people are so hidden in their tribe or so high up the mountain that nobody actually cares what they have to say. And those are good people to have as friends. They’re good people because they’re the ones that design and create deep things, but they don’t actually care what the rest of the world is doing. And you could just get lost spending your time up there.

Vance: So absolutely you’re right, you could get stuck in academia, where your ideas are just going to get put on a library shelf, or you could get stuck in some tiny subtribe within a tribe that really has nobody listening to them. And so you did have to balance that. And I was actually always, the company was always like, are you sure this is not too abstract, too obscure? It’s important to you, the Santa Fe Institute, but what do we care about that? And so the only pressure I really had was downward pressure on making sure I didn’t go to too abstractive groups.

Jim: Yep. I understand that. Well, I try to straddle a few layers in the stack. And I like to hang out with the Santa Fe Institute folks. In fact, I have a fair number of them on the podcast as regular listeners know, but then I also spend probably more time with applied people who are taking ideas like ones from Santa Fe Institute, but other ideas from elsewhere and trying to blend them in a way that might actually be useful to the actual world, people like in the GameB space or some of the work that Zach Stein is doing in education or people are doing in regenerative ecology, et cetera, where they’re informed by these deeper ideas, but yet, they’re actually trying to put them to work. So kind of this idea of level spanning is one that I personally like when I think about my own strategy.

Vance: Yeah. I like that concept, level spanning. That seems to be right. And I mean, at the end of the day, theoretical wasn’t good enough for me. And it still isn’t today. I like people that are building things. I like to come and look at what they’re building. I like it because they have something to show you. And one of the things that I am quite good at the value exchange that I have is when somebody shows me something that they’ve worked on deeply, oftentimes, their ability to explain with clarity is clouded by their love of the detail, which is what made that possible for them to build. And so the thing that I am good at doing is talking with people that really deeply care about the details and figuring out how can I explain what this is without so much detail that the clarity is lost, but also that I’m doing it with high fidelity enough that they don’t feel like their idea has been so oversimplified and watered down as to be completely meaningless.

Vance: And so that’s probably the value that allows me, a normie, to live a way up high in the graph in different spaces, because like Anthony De Pascal, he was the guy that we visited in VR. He has deep, deep, deep knowledge. And I think the one thing I can bring with him is he explains to me something and I put it in somewhat ordinary language and we have a different conversation than I think he has with the other people that are way up the graph with him.

Jim: Yeah. You have a real skill for that. I can see that. And that’s an extraordinarily valuable for the world. Because unfortunately, we live in this world where there’s often a gap in the levels and the people who are involved in deciding how they’re going to vote, et cetera, don’t really have an understanding, at least not in an accurate fashion of many of the real issues, which they really ought to if they’re going to be fully engaged citizens. So I would certainly commend you for taking on that role.

Vance: I think that one of the things that… So I’ve been listening to a lot of people talking about psychedelics right now. And they’re talking about how if you look at that on the big five personality tests, it can move your level of openness a standard deviation, which is wild. That’s like, you could go from being not religious to being totally open to religious experience.

Vance: But I actually think somewhere along the line, normally communicators, people like me that are super into extroversion, I love people, I love being around it, I love words, are oftentimes highly agreeable. And I think somewhere in my childhood, I must’ve gotten hit over the head, because I’m also highly disagreeable. If there’s some detail that I don’t understand, I can’t go on. I want to talk about it. And I don’t mind conflict at all. And that’s something that I think is required for people to go up the graph. They have to be willing to say, hey, that, like you were saying before, I reject conventional wisdom, I’m going to tear through these paper walls and go do what I want to do.

Vance: So there’s not very many communicators that are highly disagreeable, right? The PR party slots are highly agreeable. They aren’t trying to argue with you. They’re trying to find ways that you can agree. So they don’t discover new things. And I think that it’s a weird quirk of people probably in your circles that are probably also highly disagreeable.

Jim: Yeah. Certainly a fair number of are, I know I am for goddamn sure. I don’t take anything as a given, I talk to the fucking Pope and say, I think that Catholicism is a bunch of bullshit, convince me otherwise.

Vance: Well, those are where all the good conversations come from, I think.

Jim: Yeah, absolutely. And if you ever hung out with real nerds, when they have their hair down, that’s how they are with each other. Right. You get five physicists together over a bottle of scotch and, man, they go after each other. It’s hilarious. I love it.

Vance: Absolutely. We were talking before we got started about one of the best descriptions of this is in Joscha Bach, you’ve had on the podcast twice. He has a talk called the Computational meta-Psychology. That talk blew my mind. And he talks about in there about how nerds don’t see the paper walls of social norms, the things that tell you how you should behave. So they just walk through them. And normies, they believe that those walls might as well be made out of concrete. They’re never going to break them. And I think that the people that are willing to walk through paper walls are oftentimes the people that have the most interesting conversations because the social conventions don’t bind them into the ordinary.

Jim: That makes a lot of sense. That’s really good stuff. I like that. Now back to, wrapping up here on talking about Well-Actually, any final thoughts or any ways that you’ve started to think about how to extend this paradigm?

Vance: I mean, the reason that, Jim, I am so interested in helping you is that I think that what you are doing is up the graph, right? You are talking about GameB, you’re talking about these ideas that you want to spread out, but they need to spread out slowly. They need to collect the right people, not people that are tag alongs, not people that are just in it for a little while, but then maybe will get bored and move on to something else. So you are definitely your cluster of people are up the graph. But then I also think one of the most valuable things that you can do for people that are up the graph is find different clusters that are way far away from it, different networks and try and bridge between them.

Vance: So one of the other valuable things that you can do with this up the graph strategy is you can say, who else would these, this cluster of people, GameB, what cluster of people could I connect them with so that they can shoot ideas between their two graphs that are still up the graph and then they have something to share that other people aren’t ready to hear yet? And eventually, what you see is the hybridization of those two clusters of ideas means that those ideas eventually will go down the graph with much more power. There’ll be much more clarity, there’ll be fuller. And so I am very excited to see what is going on with GameB and how I can connect you guys with people that are in different networks that I think will help give the hybrid vigor that’ll need to be required in order to make GameB really, truly work.

Jim: I 100% agree. It’s interesting, you should mention this at the, in fact, I’m not going to talk about too much, but one of my projects is something called the Big Change Coalition, which is to produce a loose coupling for about 25 to 50 of these communities that are all headed in generally the same direction, but not require these groups to agree to anything much other than a very small group of principals under a philosophy that we call alignment beyond agreement. I’m going to have a lot more to say about this in about a month’s time, but I’m giving a little heads up here. I love to talk with you offline about this. I think you’d have some great insights into it.

Vance: Oh, I’d love to. And one of the things I think you and I are going to do is virtual reality. And I think one of the things that is important when you go up the graph is people have to have ways to engage with one another. The more you can get people together in a space is really important because when you go up that graph and you’re doing things that are more difficult, trust needs to be built in ways that, sometimes just the written word or sometimes just hearing people over electronic media doesn’t really work. So I’m excited for you and I to do some more of that. I think you’re going to come on my podcast and we’re going to do a podcast in VR here really soon.

Jim: Yeah. And one of the things that’s really been a big eye-opener for me, as Vance has seduced me back into VR, I actually played with VR a little bit back in the early ’90s, when it sucked. And I just heard Ben standoffish about it. When I was on his podcast, we talked about it. And I went out and got a, what the hell did I get? I got a Oculus Quest.

Vance: Oculus 2 Quest. Yep. Oculus Quest 2.

Jim: And it’s good enough. What I think I like about it is its standalone. You don’t have to be tethered to a computer or anything like that. And I fooled around with a bit on myself and I attended a little salon, advanced, organized. And it was really good. And I’m looking forward to spending more time and see if I can get the gestalt of what this is good for, because this idea of trust is really important. And I use a slightly different language.

Jim: What I often say, and this was actually in the very beginnings of GameB back in 2013, we described the text, networked world, the Facebooks, the Twitter, that kind of stuff as weak links. And we called face-to-face strong links. And it’s always been our theory that the stitch, a big, fast-moving and yet powerful movement. We want to blend the two smartly. And I will say, goddammit, COVID has derailed the face-to-face elements of building out GameB, but we’re going to get back to it in the fall. But we have found things like Zoom, are somewhere in between weak links and strong links. And I suspect, though, I haven’t yet fully convinced myself that VR may be closer to a strong link than a weak link. And it’d be really interesting if we could prove that out and then start to scale it.

Vance: I would make the case very strongly that it is somewhere in between, probably on the golden mean towards that in-person. So I run a thing called the Articulate Ventures Network, which is for people that want to figure out how do I articulate my ideas? How do I talk about things that are complicated? And I want to get them out, but I just haven’t been able to. So a lot of those people that I was talking about earlier that are up the graph that want to be in a community of people.

Vance: We run a book club and we decided, just on a whim, one time, we were going to do book club in VR, and we’re never going back to doing it on Zoom, because this people from all over the United States, even Canada, and when you do it in VR, you get to have the experience of people show up, they walked down the stairs, it’s an underground bar. Everybody says, “Oh, hey, Rob’s here, Ben’s here, Kate’s here.” And then you get to talk and chat, but where you are in the room is impacted the way the things sound. So you start having this experience.

Vance: And people don’t realize that a lot of what we do in this world, our relationship with the space around us is really impacted by sound more than we consider. We think it’s just visual, but this then leads into the book club. And we found the discussions are much richer, because people are all crowded around in the room and we’re talking. And then after the fact, we cluster off, a group of people goes and talks over here and a group of people over there. Whereas on Zoom, if you talk to the guy next to you, everybody’s going to be so pissed off at you, because you’ve just blown out the one channel of audio. So there’s something to this. I don’t have my finger on it just yet, but I think it is very, very important. And I’m prepared to push more chips in on the game. I’m just trying to find the right number to bet on.

Jim: Oh, yeah. And I will say, so far, I’ve spent probably three hours on VR that you told me, you’re going to have to spend 40 hours before you get it. And I’ve taken myself down a stack and said, “I’m going to spend 10 hours on it.” And then I’ll make an assessment on whether it’s worth spending 40 hours. But so far, I’m continuing to take one step after the other. It’d be interesting to see where I come out on it.

Vance: Have you tried the Wander app?

Jim: No.

Vance: That’ll rock your world. So it’s the Google Street View, but put to VR. And so one of the things that we do in the network is on Saturdays, we do a field trip. And whenever somebody new comes, we go around, maybe we’ll check out the pyramids. We might go to some African village that I used to live in. We go around to different places, but then people say, “Well, let me take you to my home, where I grew up.”

Jim: Yeah, my hometown. That would be the bomb. I think that is the coolest thing. I’ll do that. I will be.

Vance: And that makes it to be go from loose links to tight links. So that really changes it because everybody in there now can be like, “Oh, that’s where he grew up. Oh, that’s the town. That’s where he played basketball. That’s where…” They have these experiences. And it really does something that you could only do if you had a field trip and went to that person’s actual home. So there’s something really deep here and it’s important, I think.

Jim: That’s brilliant, because I do believe that the town I grew up in had a huge impact on who I was. And that would be so much fun to do. Well, I think we’re about out of time here. We, I think, had a really nice conversation about, Well-Actually, and then a bunch of other cool things. So, Vance, I really want to thank you for a fun episode of the Jim Rutt Show.

Vance: Thanks. It was an honor, Jim.

Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Mahler at