Sunday Best – May 5, 2019

Years ago I attended a seminar with the brilliant mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. I remember being so excited to hear what he had to say, and also a little worried that the discussion would be too technical for me to follow.

The first sentence he said was, “I study roughness.”

He explained that most of mathematics had been dedicated to explaining smoothness and straight-lined geometric forms, but when we look at the world around us, it’s much more interesting than that. It’s bumpy and swirled and nested and craggy, often in gloriously consistent ways.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the role of roughness and friction in our lives and in our systems. So much of our time is spent trying to smooth things out – strategizing on how to design an express lane, or get a complete gym workout in 20 minutes, or automate a portfolio construction process. And it’s true, I’m glad I don’t have to milk my own cow to make a latte, or keep my earnings models by hand on graph paper.

But the whole point of those efficiencies is to make room for something better. A hike in the woods is less efficient than a run on the treadmill, but it fills up my soul. A home cooked meal is less efficient than take-out, but it’s a different kind of nourishment. A one on one conversation with an entrepreneur is less efficient than reviewing their pitch book, but it allows for a connection beyond transaction.

Seamless is not always the goal. Seams hold things together. And they can be mended and adjusted, so that the garment can shift over time without tearing asunder. We need the rough, along with the smooth. We need the swirls and craggy bits along with the straight lines.

Dear friends, whether we are designing power grids or running errands, let’s flip our question around. Instead of asking where we can cut something out, let’s ask, what do I want to add back in?

Let’s dwell a little in the roughness, where there’s room to reflect and to learn and to work and to be a little bit still.

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