Get Out of Your Algo-hole and Become Fearless

Seek strong characters, learn landscapes, systems and healing

I’m writing this week on the way to the Gila Wilderness. Wish me warmth!

I believe that relying on algorithms to tell us what to consume robs us of the joy of discovery, and the depth of making a personal exploration based on the connections we find, over and above what the AI wants to show us. Creativity is all about finding these connections. I’m trying to avoid algorithms more and more, in creative research and in everyday life.

Recently, Gabby and I have started to create thematic discovery weeks for ourselves to reject the algorithms. All this means is one week we are watching a group of films by one director, or looking into a specific cultural moment, such as Japanese movies from the 80s. Instead of browsing Netflix. This has been more enjoyable, has given us deeper understanding, less of a feeling of being a cork bobbing on a wild ocean of content.

Here are some of the books and movies that have powerfully affected me in 2024. These pieces of art are about becoming fearless, and knowing the world differently. If you want to create great work and understand those around you better, I recommend you dip into them. Here is how they are all connected and intertwined.

Discover fearless people

WHY? For many of us, working and living is danger-free. The way we experience death and drama and fear has become sanitized - we are afraid of losing our jobs, or not getting a promotion, or online shame. This is nice — it is great not to have to worry about marauders coming to burn down your village. But it means that millions of us have not lived fearless lives. At the very least, we can ensure we come in contact with people who have. What it teaches you is that experience creates character and strong character survives experience.

I’ve been on a Werner Herzog blitz for a week or so, prompted by the release of his autobiography, Every Man For Himself and God Against All. Reading the book, or better still, listening to it in Herzog’s trademark voice (you may know him from his cameo appearances in The Mandalorian), you get to know the astounding travails he experienced, and it explains why he seeks out and draws to him such strong characters - he is one himself.

Herzog is the most unafraid creator I know of. He is surely a nightmare to live with, and the perfect dinner guest. Stories about Herzog are so dramatic, they sound fake. He was angrily banned from a commercial airline in Latin America for refusing to adopt the instructed brace position during an emergency descent and feared crash-landing, which happily all survived. He says he refused to cower in the face of death, which might sound dumb coming from anyone else. The airline went under a few years later, but Herzog lives on. Every additional tale you learn about Herzog’s upbringing, famished in a remote post-war Bavarian mountain town, shows you how he forged his own version of fearlessness that applies to filmmaking and life.

I encourage you to Be Like Herzog for a while, getting to know people, like him, who have lived spectacular, archetypal, lives. A perfect, if harrowing way to start is by watching his films Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Wings of Hope. Both are stories of air crash and jungle survival. Both are scary, inspiring and the craziest narratives you will have learned about this year.

Dieter Dengler re-enacts his Vietnam prison life following his air crash.

The two individuals tell you their epic stories in the middle of the jungle, that Herzog has returned them to in person, to act out their plight on the exact land where they crashed and had to navigate their way out of dense remote jungle with no provisions, injuries and certain death all around. Both central characters have a powerful joy and strength of purpose that clearly allowed them to survive where the vast majority of us would have perished, and those strong characters were also shaped further by that very experience. This is not a clean tale — their pain and trauma are resurfaced by the filming.

Lone survivor Juliane Koepcke examines luggage from her air crash in Wings of Hope

In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, you get to know a character who existed around 21,000 years ago — from his dozens of handprints made by a single man with a recognizably-crooked little finger. In this film Herzog gets special access to the Chauvet cave in the South of France which contains pristine rock paintings left in stillness after a landslide blocked the original entrance — among the oldest and certainly among the best-preserved in the world (the very oldest yet discovered in the world seems to be in the Maltravieso cave nearby in Spain, from around 64,000 years ago).

It is worth watching this film for its ideas of permanence, and accident, and longevity. It makes any modern idea of legacy somewhat laughable.

The bear skull

As they move through the Chauvet cave, Herzog’s team come across a skull of a bear, casually left resting in ceremonial position on a rock platform for the past several thousand years. The cave system seems to have been originally inhabited by bears, and perhaps humans killed the bears and forever wanted to write all over the former home of the vanquished.

The blizzard survival exercise in Encounters at the End of the World

Folks far from their own home are found in Encounters at the End of the World, where Werner visits Antarctica and meets a community of outsider-travelers living in the most remote place on Earth.

This is perhaps the most low-key, reality-TV version of Herzog but is no less good for that, with striking moments that all contain lessons and joy:

  • The man working as a plumber in Antarctica proudly showing us his (self-described but who knows) Aztec royal family hands.

  • The sound of ice bending and cracking over the water.

  • Footage of research divers far under the ice without navigational aids.

  • A humorous but scary survival exercise where people with buckets on their head have to pretend to recover a colleague in a blizzard, to complete disaster.

Learn to understand landscape

WHY? We conduct more and more of our lives online, remotely, and in cities paved with concrete and disconnected from a true conception of landscape. For example, not many people can even tell you what the topography of Manhattan even looks like. There is a stronger connection between people, place and knowledge that is waiting to be discovered. This is to be done by doing, and also vicariously through others.

Feeling almost as remote as Antarctica, In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin features vignettes of an incredible depth and range of these same kinds of strange characters, — including a mention of Billy the Kid for good measure. I don’t know if I recommend this book as much as I do The Songlines by Chatwin, and I don’t know how to feel about that book either. But reading both will broaden your sense for humanity and character. In Patagonia is quite completely a book removed from the hum of civilization. Every moment between words is silence, and even in the middle of nowhere, rich characters dwell.

The many-pages-long collection of quotes about nomadic cultures that Chatwin pulls together in Songlines give you a sense of the depths of his own travels and deep reading — both of which are catalogued in Herzog’s excellent documentary film about Chatwin, Nomad.

One of dozens of collected quotes and thoughts on nomadism in The Songlines

In Nomad, Herzog reveals he had to spend the night snowed in high up a mountain sitting with warm arse on Chatwin’s leather backpack, a gift received at Chatwin’s death. In this episode, Herzog’s team was caught at high altitude without supplies, at fatal risk, due to a logistical mistake: They had been dropped off as a team first via helicopter, expecting their supply drop with tents and gear to arrive just minutes later via second helicopter journey, minutes away. But of course the mountain weather changed so rapidly into fog and blizzard that the second helicopter could not safely land, and the team was stranded overnight in deep snow and freezing temperatures with nothing but what they carried. Including, luckily, Chatwin’s backpack.

Reading Songlines, Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk, and The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly (who has her own Songlines book too) radically changed my perception of land and place.

Kelly has re-created a number of memory systems, including the fascinating Lukasa memory board system used by the Luba tribe which uses a handheld physical object with a dense collection of touchable and visual nodes to store stories and privileged information in multiple layers. The most well-known book on memory in North America is probably Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer and some of the ideas around rich imaginative stories being a store for memory do overlap, but I recommend Kelly’s books for an attempt to uncover the broader history of memory, oral culture and how societies attempted to keep deep knowledge during a transition to agriculture.

An example of a lukasa (Brooklyn Museum)

The book The Islanders by Christopher Priest also uses topography, time and narrative to create a fictional world (The ‘Dream Archipelago’) as much constructed by winds and elements as the actions of people within. This is my favorite science fiction book of recent times, because it is a masterclass in world-building in (as far as I know) a completely novel way. The book had a huge influence on We’re Plastic.

Change your understanding of agriculture

WHY? Most casual discussion of agriculture is based on the black-or-white idea of untouched ‘wild’ land versus ‘farmed’ land. The real picture of ancient and modern food gathering and cultivation is far more nuanced. Unexamined Western concepts about indigenous societies and so-called ‘primitive’ approaches are not only false, but a low-resolution version of the elegance and sophistication of these systems, developed over thousands of years. To work in food and ag, it is worth digging deeper.

Just as The Islanders depends on a variety of unreliable narrators, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe relies deeply on the troublesome and scary written accounts of white settlers in Australia to attempt to piece together a survey of Indigenous agricultural methods, housing and aquaculture in use pre-colonization — i.e. the things these settlers wrote about, and then immediately destroyed. Pascoe’s is a deeply-researched but controversial telling of history that still feels at times like it is missing connection to current voices and a deeper Indigenous perspective, but viewed with that caveat it gives detail of some really staggering concepts. One of the most compelling is the UNESCO-recognized aquaculture of the Gunditjmara, with elegant human alteration to river systems to create holding areas and traps for fish. Structures are designed thoughtfully, for example smart arrangements of boulders and rocks that allow small fish to swim upstream while holding large fish in pools, with narrow exit channels to allow a net to be slotted in across the water.

Stone dwellings in Dark Emu

A central theme in Dark Emu is that white settlers had a motive to spread a false narrative that all Indigenous peoples in Australia were nomadic hunter-gatherers in order to grease the settlers’ ‘legal’ Terra Nullius claim: that Indigenous Australians did not ‘own’ any land. As such, the ample evidence for permanent dwellings and sophisticated, large-scale land management, agriculture and aquaculture was destroyed both intentionally and negligently. When you start to peel back the layers, a picture of rich, sustainable, varied, settled pre-colonial life is created.

Understand systems thinking

WHY? Most people think about points and trends but never about systems. Learning to recognize and understand systems as a whole is a key skill for creatives and managers of organizations. Even the simple knowledge that there are low-leverage and high-leverage ways to impact systems is useful for anyone working in organizations, large and small.

As required by patient agriculture, a deep understanding of systems is a goal aspired to in the excellent Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. I mentioned this book a few weeks ago because it has had as much impact on my recent thinking as the perhaps perfect Draft No. 4 by John McPhee, and I’ve been personally fascinated with the way these two books tell some of the same story through completely opposite ends of the looking glass. McPhee’s book is about how to write great narrative nonfiction, which means describing a complex system of facts, trends, concepts, people. Meadows’ book is about how to understand those systems as systems. Each are both… great examples of narrative nonfiction and explaining complex systems.

And you could say that Right Story / Wrong Story by Yunkaporta (again) does the same thing, in a way more akin to a late-night conversation than a research report. It is probably unwise to read this without reading Sand Talk first. If you enjoy these rambling chats, Yunkaporta’s podcast is an infuriating and inspiring audio companion, with often-terrible audio, numerous distractions, meanderings into nowhere, and the occasional piece of solid gold.

Learn the power of being in relationship

WHY? A great leap in your creativity and enjoyment of working with others will come upon acknowledgement that you are not in a vacuum, and that the interactions between people, things, actions, groups and networks are as important as the actions themselves. You are part of a system, like it or not, and your worldview about this is critical.

Yunkaporta is also a contributor to Restoring The Kinship Worldview, and after reading that and Becoming Kin, broadly on the subject of on Indigenous knowledge systems, I think it was inevitable I read The Evolved Nest by Darcia Narvaez, which somehow is only $1.99 right now on Kindle - a steal. Worldview and Kin both go deep into the power of relationship and ways of thinking that are counter to individualist mindsets.

Nest is a book about how Animals raise their young and what we can learn from them. For example, Elephants and Whales use a definitive alloparenting system (similar to Aunties and Uncles) to ensure that offspring always have secondary parental figures as highly-present parts of their lives. Narvaez uses data with good effect to show the positive impact of strategies like these in human cultures, which have often been lost in settler civilizations to ill effect on the upbringing of our younger generations.

This speaks to the broader message of the book IntraConnected by Daniel Siegel, which was recommended to me by Justin, Farm.One’s past VP of Farming. Siegel is but the second person I know of who suffered a brain injury (his in a horse-riding accident in Mexico, a few miles from the ‘home’ of psilocybin-containing mushrooms) that seems to have disrupted their brain’s function and caused them to completely change their moment-to-moment worldview towards a connected, we-are-all-one mindset.

The other brain injury recipient is Jill Bolte Taylor, whose 30-million-view Ted Talk and book My Stroke of Insight describes from her neuroscience background how she realized she was having a stroke, while it was happening. The stroke seems to have given her the same sense of connectedness versus organization, but in contrast to Siegel’s book’s focus on worldview, Bolte Taylor’s attention feels more about how to think about integrating parts of your brain in a functional way, to create a more rounded way of living. This book and a book I read last year called How Emotions Are Made both gave me a far deeper understanding of the brain.

Discover different mental models for healing

WHY? Injury is one of the strongest motivators of mental change. As I wrote in Second Chances, injuries and illness often create a change in path and a re-evaluation of the trends that got us there.

In recovery, the tension between thinking of the whole and fixing the part is illustrated well by two books on back pain that I’ve found in fascinating opposition, with equal value. One is called Healing Back Pain - The Mind Body Connection by Dr John Sarno, which as the title implies, is a mental approach for healing back issues, and Back Mechanic by Dr Stuart McGill is the divide/organize instinct kicked into high gear around how the body moves. I am glad I have read them both.

Weirdly, Sarno’s book was recommended by Jimmy Carr and Tim Brennan on his excellent Blocks podcast (I recommend Carr’s episode strongly, because it talks about his own career as a response to childhood trauma).

If you believe Sarno’s book, your back pain is due to unresolved tension or anger. If you believe McGill’s, it’s about understanding how you move and strengthen. In some ways, you can follow either one and get good results, but if you read the first one you don’t have to do any exercises. I’m joking. Am I?

Learn about the value of focus

WHY? Focus is one of the biggest enablers for great work. The more you understand this and develop practices for achieving focus yourself and among those around you, the more you will enjoy work and produce ambitious things.

Speaking of avoiding exercises, I mentioned Slow Productivity by Cal Newport in my last post. If you are new to him, Deep Work is probably a better entry point because it goes into more detail about the science. As I said before, Newport’s approach is directed at individuals, which makes total sense. But I think it’s possible to help teams enable work among themselves rather than relying on individuals. Which is where The Power of Positive Dog Training comes in. We have been crate-agnostic for years, but we are now teaching Tyler to use one, with the methodology in this book.

The advice that has been most compelling from all three books is that if there are any distractions around, work might be useless. 😀 


I coach founders and startup folks to give them the confidence to grow strong and successful companies while living their best life. If you are interested in this, reach out! Unless my experience scared you off 🙂 

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