Frying eggs as the world burns
Reflections on FTX and great creative work in times of chaos
Before I became a tech founder, and after working in neuro labs, I was briefly a chef. And so, I am that friend that people reach out to with questions like “how do you cook the perfect fried egg?”
My answer to that question is my inner mantra for how great creative work happens, and how it feels. It’s all about cultivating a relaxed curiosity about the process. And right now, especially if you are building in tech/crypto and navigating all of the chaos and market changes and AI and whatnot, it’s a great time to revisit techniques for staying focused on your craft.
The perfect sunny-side up egg
Many people that ask me how to cook the perfect fried egg are looking for a foolproof set of instructions. Something along the lines of:
Turn the burner to medium.
Place the pan on the burner for 2 minutes.
Add 1 tbsp of oil, then the egg.
Cook for 3 minutes.
Remove the egg.
I can offer very little help to these people, because my actual answer goes something more like:
Line a pan with oil and get it hot, but not so hot the oil is smoking.
Add the egg, and get it sizzling, but not to the point where it starts jumping in the pan and making loud “pffsst” sounds.
Monitor the yolk, where the thick of the white transitions to the thin skirt, and the outer edge.
If color happens at the very edge before you get bubbles in the transition, it’s too hot. If the white around the yolk starts to turn before the edge starts to brown, it’s not hot enough. You’ll almost always need to change the heat mid-flight.
Note that this depends on the size of the egg, the size of the pan, and what perfect actually means relative to the dish you’re making.
On the one hand this is a story of theory vs practice. But thankfully for newer chefs, the difference between the two recipes above isn’t just experience. What I’ve found is that most people — regardless of how many eggs they’ve cooked — have never even noticed the little bubbles that happen on the surface of the egg white, or the color that forms at the very edge.
Believe it or not, I didn’t arrive at the above conclusions by standing over the stove, pen in one hand and spatula in the other, furiously scribbling notes about the egg in my laboratory journal. The truth is the opposite — I notice the little details of eggs cooking because I am totally relaxed, but very engaged.
Cooking eggs as the world burns
You no doubt have seen the mass layoffs over the past weeks, the latest crypto meltdown in FTX, the hysteria around AI, and so on. The egg, so to speak, is doing lots of things in the pan, all at once. If you squint and clench your jaw and try to stay on top of all of it, you will find yourself in that state where it feels like you’re swimming faster and faster but still sinking. For many people that hate cooking, that state of panic happens all of the time in the kitchen.
I am not here to convince you to cook breakfast foods. Nor is it lost on me that this is yet another post about quieting your mind to achieve some flow state in your creative work. But a few of the tactics I’ve learned via cooking are generalizable, and might spark something new for you.
If cooking eggs relaxes you, cook a lot of eggs. Your state of mind lingers from one activity to the next. That’s why Einstein played the violin when stuck on a complex problem. After relaxing his mind, he returned with fresh eyes. So if you have an activity that brings you back to that relaxed but interested state, invest time in it — especially in moments of chaos.
Don’t confuse relaxed interest with apathy. As with a lot of people, my immediate reaction to the most recent FTX scandal was “here we go again.” After a few years of building in crypto, I instantly understood how the overleveraged and intransparent nature of centralized exchanges likely caused the situation, and how the mainstream press would react to it. The news didn’t elicit a strong emotional reaction in me — even though I was of course interested in it. At first I was tempted to interpret my lack of strong emotions as apathy, a resignation to a state where the possibility we see for crypto always remains out of reach. But I later recognized this as the egg cooking state. I no longer feel like an outsider building in crypto, and now I can see what we need to do to help build something great. The past few weeks have been some of the most productive and creative in the last year, and our longer-term vision for Backdrop has crystallized a lot. I can’t wait to share it with you all.
Try to notice something new. Curious interest is the foundation of creativity, and the simplest way to reignite curiosity is to notice something new. And the simplest way to notice something new is by narrowing your focus. Instead of the egg, focus on one part of it. This is the same tactic I use most to find something interesting to write about — think of the smallest topic you can possibly imagine, and often you’ll be able to fill pages and pages. Think of the biggest topic you can imagine, and you’ll undoubtedly get writer’s block.
I hope it goes without saying that I make some pretty bad eggs from time to time, and am by no means an expert on any of this. There is no foolproof way to produce great work when things get stressful. But hopefully it helps you as it has helped me. Now, I’m off to cook breakfast.
If you care about community ownership and peer production, I publish a few articles a year exploring the future of those topics.