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Sideways Looks #26: Thoughts on 2022, also Glass Onion

Last year I wrote some new year reflections on starting a business. This year I’ll do some reflections on a year of trying things out, as a ‘solopreneur’* and also by moving abroad (to Berlin). I’ll start with the work stuff, then move onto the Berlin experiences.

* The term for entrepreneurs who generally work on their own, like me. I don’t love the term, but I do think the ‘solo’ aspect is an important distinction from entrepreneurs so I’ll use it below anyway.

Part 1: Working as a Solopreneur

I’d characterise my 2022 as a 'tactical' year; and 2023 as hopefully a 'strategic' one. ‘Tactical’ means looking for and seizing opportunities as they present themselves. I’ve found, and done, a mixture of interesting work this year. I’ve helped a local council and a charity with their online communications; I’ve experimented with ways of making data engaging to non-specialists, through things like cartoons and social media posts; I’ve written various pieces on technology policy; and I’ve done a few chunky research projects on disinformation/hate speech online and governments’ uses of data in Covid. Some of that work (the public bits) can be found here.


This approach has fitted with a very unpredictable year, where I’ve moved around a lot (8 times in one year - the Berlin rental market is wild) and where my visa situation is uncertain; and also a year where I’ve met a lot of new people, rebuilt my day-to-day life essentially from scratch, and taken each week as it comes. I’ve hung out in groups where I could find fellow entrepreneurs, other groups where I can chat AI and politics, and others where I meet social media communicators and aspiring influencers.


This somewhat random mix has advantages. I’ve learned a lot of disparate things, in ways I may not have in a more linear path. For instance, I think I’ve become a more effective communicator of my research projects thanks to time I’ve spent in social media communications world. I think I understand different mindsets better (though that can sometimes cause me conflicts - for instance trying to hold in my head multiple ideas of what counts as ‘good research’). And it’s forced me to see how I behave, how I learn, and how I work when I’m making my own structure. They say you learn most from mistakes, and it’s definitely easier to make mistakes without a safety net of colleagues and managers. Also, more positively, when there’s been successes it’s easier for me to see how they happened, and learn from them.

But of course, this flexible, tactical approach also comes with disadvantages - ones that, I suspect, are common at my stage of solopreneurship. Last year I described one benefit of going solopreneur as “Was one cog in big machine -> now I see whole machine.” I still think that’s a very useful learning experience. And if you’re living tactically, the best machine to build is a kind of swiss army knife with many parts. But over time, maintaining that plethora of parts can become a problem. What industry trends should I focus on staying on top of - new regulations, new research methods, new platforms, marketing trends? Should I spend my learning time on research papers, coding and dataviz skills, or marketing platforms?


There’s also a risk of identity crisis. In some situations, it’s obvious to know which aspects of myself to highlight - if I’m in a policy meetup I’ll obviously talk about working in No10 Downing Street, if I’m meeting a start-up I might talk more about the sorts of training I can provide. But what if the audience isn’t clear, e.g. online? More importantly - how are other people describing me, if I don’t have a clear role? (Jeff Bezos, for all his faults, has the perceptive saying ‘your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room). So over time I think you either have to hone the machine to a very focused purpose, or you bring other people onto the machine and divide up roles (or, probably ideally, both).

So what do I mean when I say I want a more strategic year in 2023? You can think of strategy in various ways - longer term planning, mapping out disparate elements into a whole, something in that ballpark. But I find most useful the phrase of Michael Porter: “The Essence of Strategy is Choosing What Not to Do.” So that’s what I intend to do.


The first step has been reflecting on early ‘experimental results’ of the last 18 months and making some choices. Some are hard but, based on experience, worth taking. For instance, I decided earlier this year to ease off on the work I was doing to build the ‘Data Skills Consultancy’ brand. I like the idea; but I’ve found I get so much more traction when I use my existing personal brand, not an as-yet-built business brand. I can see the work I’d need to do to build the brand; put a lot more time into producing content, doing continuous engagement to build up audiences, and (in all probability) hiring people to help. That’s not something that I can easily mix with other work. And right now, at a pretty pivotal time in technology regulation and social media politics, I want to focus on other things than brand-building. I’m still keen on the Data Skills Consultancy idea, and I’ve had various ideas that might have to go on ice for a bit - which is always a bit sad. But importantly, I’ve learned what I’d do differently if and when I wanted to pick it up again.


The next step will be getting into an environment where I can see which of my skills/interests I can most usefully develop. To that end, I’ve decided I want to return to work in an organisation with structure and full colleagues. The organisation will ideally work at some intersection of technology and society, and trying to do something socially good. It’ll have problems to solve, whether internal or external; I can use my different bits of research/comms/tech/interpersonal skills as needed in different situations. Molly Graham has an excellent blogpost on this topic, where she advises jobseekers to use what you know about yourself to find the “holes that are shaped like you”.


The nature of whatever role and organisation I find will guide me as to what to focus on in my personal development, and help me to focus on those - after all, set paths to somewhere can sometimes be easier to travel through than wide open fields. And also, whenever that happens, I’ll finally have some visa security and can build a more stable life in Berlin. Which brings us to part two of the reflections...


Part 2: Moving Abroad


Context for those unaware: I moved to Berlin in Feb 2022 for no other reason than I wanted to try living abroad. Also, obvious disclaimer for ‘learning from living abroad’: I’ve moved from London to Berlin. I’ve moved from one European, largely English-speaking, capital city to another. I’ve not exactly become a farmer in outer Mongolia. Nonetheless, there’s still been some (hopefully) interesting things to reflect on.


I was told, before I moved, that the first year of living abroad is the hardest. If that’s true, future years for me are going to be brilliant. A recurring theme has been kindness and openness, shorn of the slight social uncertainty that I think sometimes characterises meeting new people in Britain. (Another recurring theme - I struggle to know what is ‘German culture’, or ‘Berlin culture’, and what is simply ‘not British’). The pattern ‘we should go for coffee’ / ‘yes, we should’ / [never speak again] has been a very rare experience. My favourite story: I went to a breakfast for freelancers. I sat next to someone who had lived in London, and her partner had studied at UCL (where I did my PhD). At the close of breakfast, I said we should get coffee sometime. She replied ‘well me and some friends are meeting tonight, if you’re around?’. I went, had a great time - being introduced as ‘guy I met at breakfast this morning’ didn’t seem weird at all. I have seen this person, and her partner, multiple times since. That’s the most fun example, but there are many others like that.


I’ve had the importance of sharing problems - and of asking basic, seemingly stupid questions - re-emphasised. There is a heck of a lot of bureaucracy and other general complications to starting life in Berlin. You can google as much as you like, but nothing beats making a general complaint and a friend saying ‘oh actually the best way to sort that is…’. The first time I was able to tell a confused new arrival about the job seeker visa, I felt great; I felt I was now part of a great chain of passing on advice.


(I feel I should address the context of being a Brit in the EU: When I mention I need a visa, the response is usually a first ‘oh’ of confusion; then a second ‘ohh’ of realisation. Then sometimes they say ‘you must be so annoyed about Brexit’. My response to that is: well, I voted Remain, and I still think Remain was the best option for a few reasons. But I still get uncomfortable at the idea that being born in Britain should, in an alternate history, permit me to move freely to Germany - when I have many friends in Berlin from countries who never had that privilege, just by virtue of where they were born. ‘You must be so annoyed about national borders and immigration requirements’ would be a more interesting question, in my opinion).


I’ve been surprised by all sorts of random little things. The fact that postboxes have names, not numbers; how many people asked if I was ok when the Queen died (and were genuinely interested in how I felt about it). I’ve also been surprised at how unsurprised I’ve been by some things. For example, I’d obviously heard that Germans - and, I’m told, particularly Berliners - are blunter than Brits. But I’ve not found it all-pervasive, or alienating. It’s just a slightly different inflection on conversations. There’s certainly been some times when my jokes have been read as serious comments (something I’ve learned non-Brits find a struggle when dealing with Brits), but only on a minority of occasions. As so often - the ‘average person’ may differ between countries, but in practice variation from the average is very wide.


I have learned a lot about speaking foreign languages (context: when I arrived in Berlin my German was just-about-passable; I’d say it’s now ok, I can just about follow full conversations in German, though I’m still clearly a learner). I already knew that knowledge is much easier to learn in context than in the abstract - e.g. someone who struggled with biology in school may still understand biology in the context of their personal health - but I’ve been surprised at just how much it helps new knowledge go into the brain.* Passively hearing words on the radio or public transport, or a friend explaining why what you said was wrong, makes new words so much more memorable than things like Duolinguo or Quizlet; if I struggle to remember a word or phrase, I now write a little story using it (I’ve actually tried using the AI writing tool ChatGPT to help with that, but that’s a topic for another post…)


* There’s a link here to the previous section - I’ve found plenty of opportunities to learn lots of new skills in practical contexts; however that involves switching between contexts a lot, which can limit how far each bit of learning goes.


I’ve also learned things that are probably extremely obvious to any non-monolinguals. E.g. there are different varieties of ‘fluent’. There are Germans who look baffled when I try and speak German to them - ‘it would be much easier for both of us if we used English’’ they say (or clearly think). Then there are (very nice) German speakers who humour me. Then there are people who, despite seeming fluent in English, would prefer to speak German, even if it’s a bit stilted. One of my friends speaks at least four languages, including English - but, she said to me once, ‘I don’t feel like myself when I speak English’. I’ve also had a tiny, tiny taste - as an English speaker - of how tiring, awkward, or lonely it can be when you’re in a group conversation working really hard just to keep up. As Sofia Vergara says in the sitcom Modern Family, “do you know how smart I am in Spanish?”. Finding fellow non-natives to speak with can be relaxing and liberating - I have an Australian friend, and we have a lot of fun speaking German while exaggerating our native accents (one of our German friends once left the room while we were doing it). Also, the stereotype that it’s easier to speak languages after a beer or two? Totally true.


Perhaps as importantly, I’ve learned a lot about what English speakers can do to help others. I’ve learned a few tips I wish I’d known earlier - e.g. when someone in a group is speaking not their native language, even if they seem very good at it, it’s a good idea to look directly at them and just slow down a bit. And it’s good to try and spot if you’re using language idiomatically, and be more literal. As a very fast, and quite idiomatic speaker, I have a lot of regrets from previous conversations. But more positively, I clearly have learned. An Italian friend came to visit Berlin recently. She can speak and write academic-level English with seemingly no problems. Partway through the trip she said to me ‘I’ve noticed you speak English slower when you’re talking to me’. I braced myself for ‘I don’t need that, that’s patronising’. She actually answered ‘I really appreciate it’. I’ve been trying to learn to speak slower for years, but clearly living abroad is the secret. (The same friend also enjoyed learning very British idioms from me; by the end of the trip if she didn’t like something she’d say ‘I’m not a massive fan of that’ and then ask quietly ‘is that right?’).


Finally, the joy of showing people around a foreign city that you have come to see as a home is wonderful. And to those who have asked - yes, I have come to see Berlin as a home and I do intend to stay there if I can. Bis bald.

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Fun Fact About: Glass Onion


Like many over Christmas, I watched Glass Onion, and then rewatched Knives Out. I’d say they’re both excellent, and actually doing very different things - Knives Out is a clever whodunnit with actual twists and turns, whereas Glass Onion is a more a straightforward enjoyable comedy.


Anyway, it’s no spoiler to say that Glass Onion features a giant clock which says ‘Dong’ every hour. It turned out from the credits that the single word ‘Dong’ was spoken by multi-award-winning actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It then turned out that he also has a voice-only role in Knives Out, as a detective on a TV show heard in Marta’s family flat. Then it turns out he has appeared somewhere in every film directed by Rian Johnson. I’m excited to see how his next role can be any more perfunctory than saying ‘Dong’.

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Recommendations


There’s a lot of technology podcasts out there, but I’ve recently got into Hard Fork and finding it both interesting and enjoyable. On a similar note, the recent Decoder episode with Tumblr CEO Matt Mullenweg has some very interesting lessons for Elon Musk (and interviewer Nilay Patel, on the back of his excellent ‘Welcome to Hell, Elon’ article, continues to show himself as a great interrogator of today’s social media landscape). Also on a similar note, the New Public Purpose Technology reading list is a good list (and I’m not just saying that because I’m on it, honestly).


I’m having an unexpected spate of learning about massively fraudulent businesses. The Smartest Guys in the Room, about Enron, by Bethany McLean (who is excellent on the Capitalisnt podcast) and Peter Elkind is very long, and quite complicated in parts, but still a vivid portrayal of high-greed psychology and worth a read if you’re into this stuff. There's a documentary, too, but I haven't seen it; I have seen Lucy Prebble's bizarre and excellent play Enron, but that's a bit less detailed on the company and more into, erm, dancing velociraptors. A bit easier, and very compelling listening - the podcast equivalent of a page-turner - is the Bad Blood podcast about Elizabeth Holmes and her blood-testing company Theranos. And Matt Levine’s Money Stuff newsletter continues to be hilarious about the collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX (read here, subscribe for free here).


And finally, a friend yesterday told me about the weirdly well-hidden ‘Broadcast’ feature on WhatsApp. You choose a list of contacts; it sends the same message individually to each of them. Saves making a group for everything. Though I’d still be grateful if WhatsApp could just create a version of Facebook events - literally the one thing I think Facebook still theoretically does better than other platforms, except for the fact that barely anyone I know is checking Facebook for event invites nowadays.


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Thanks for reading. Please do share with others using this link, and let me know your thoughts via this short poll.

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