Exploring the Rocky Contours

A few years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóðið, which roughly translates to “the Christmas book flood.” It already sounds pretty great, right? It gets better.

The tradition, at least how I choose to believe it, is that on Christmas Eve all the families in Iceland give each other books and then spend the rest of the evening lying in bed reading and drinking/eating chocolate. This is the best holiday tradition ever!

Ever since finding out about it, I have insisted the Warnick family participate in our own version of Jólabókaflóðið, except I buy all the books, including for myself. I wrap all the books and act shocked and surprised when I open mine, which no one other than me finds amusing for some reason.

This year for Jólabókaflóðið, I bought myself When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, which I have been looking forward to ever since I read about it in the New York Times Best Books of 2021 (“Labatut expertly stitches together the stories of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers to explore both the ecstasy and agony of scientific breakthroughs: their immense gains for society as well as their steep human costs.”)

It is a slim book with heavy ideas, most of which revolve around exploring the thin line between genius and madness, evil and the miraculous. I was particularly compelled by the story of mathematical savant Alexander Grothendieck, whose brilliance, as Labatut explains it, was in his ability to “recognize that there was something grander hidden behind every algebraic equation.” Grothendieck himself describes these grand hidden solutions being revealed to him “like the contours of a rocky coast illuminated at night by the rotating lamp of a lighthouse.” (Note from Scott: When did our blog posts become so thought provoking? I sure hope there is a Punky Brewster joke coming soon)

For me, this anecdote highlights one of my key takeaways from the book: in order to move from good to great, we need a willingness to expand our mind and open it up to possibilities outside of the traditional. We need to push boundaries and explore the rocky contours illuminated by Grothendieck’s lighthouse. We need to step outside our comfort zone (you know where this is heading…)

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that we are currently accepting abstracts to present at CMEpalooza Spring 2022 (here are the details and here is the submission form.) I’d like to encourage those of you who are still reading this to use this opportunity to do your own boundary and comfort zone pushing. This will be different for different people. If you have never presented at an industry conference before, simply submitting an abstract is pushing. If you have only done solo presentations, gathering a panel to work with is pushing. If you have participated in panels, challenge yourself to think of something you have never done before. This is your chance to explore the rocky contours of presenting. We’ll try to illuminate as much of the coast as we can. (Scott again: Dammit. No Punky Brewster references. Next time…)

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