Speed is not particularly interesting

Feat. Robert Poynton


Welcome to Salmon Theory, a weekly newsletter about philosophy and strategy.

(With the occasional interview about other people’s philosophies.)

I’m Rob. Thank you for your attention. Let’s do this.

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Generally, I suck at serendipity.

The acceptance of it, that is.

I need to feel some sense of control, it’s how I deal with the world.

My guest this week – well, he’s the polar opposite.

I’ll let Robert Poynton introduce himself below, but the way we met is telling.

It was literally a friend of a friend who emailed me out of nowhere.

Because we had met on Twitter, though we’d never really spoken before.

But he said he felt I should meet Robert.

And suddenly I found myself emailing Robert for a chat.

And then we ended up doing an hour-and-so video call about, well, loads of stuff.

And after that I found myself receiving lovely semi-weekly newsletters from him.

Long story short, I quickly knew I had to have him for a conversation here.

How’s that for letting uncontrolled events guide some of your decisions?

But let’s get this show on the road, then.

Without further ado – the philosophy of Robert Poynton.

Welcome, Robert! Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I live in the Sierra de Gredos in central Spain, off grid, in a solar powered house. It suits me being out on the edge. I believe in playing around with things (and people) rather than trying to control them. I am fascinated by the power of place and the absurdity of human attempts to control ourselves, other people and things around us. I want us to be able to learn to enjoy uncertainty, rather than dread it.

I like to create and hold spaces for people to think and learn in a playful way. Yellow is the latest of these: small learning online groups, where people can explore how to cope with, or thrive in, complexity. It was a response to the coronavirus crisis. Then there's the Pause Project which came out of my book Do Pause and includes events like The Creative Tapas Experience or Reading Retreats. And I write a newsletter about pause.

[ed note: Robert’s newsletter is consistently one of the best things I read all week.]

Most of the important stuff in my life has been serendipitous. How I met my wife, how we built the house we live in. In 1996 I bought a t-shirt on a market stall in Portland, Oregon, that led to twenty five years of working with ideas that come from improv theatre, which in turn led to Oxford University's Saïd Business School, where I am an Associate Fellow and get to play around with global groups of senior leaders, using improv as an embodied way to explore responses to complexity and change.

I have always been involved in new ideas and projects and I have a short attention span, so right now I am trying not to start anything else. I’m on Instagram (pretty much the only social media I use) and LinkedIn.

How did you get to where you are?

By serendipity. So not luck exactly, but certainly not with a predictive plan or goal. I have always been committed to doing things I enjoy. Or to put it the other way round, I am useless at doing things that I don’t enjoy. So I change them fast if there isn’t something fun for me.

Why do you do what you do?

I can’t not. I get excited and interested by ideas and where they come from and how to bring them to life. So once something occurs to me that I am curious about (and that happens a lot) then I have to try it out.

How do you speed your brain up?

I try not to. My mind moves way too fast much of the time, and I don’t think speed is particularly important or interesting. I prefer depth. So the question I would ask would be how do you deepen your thinking. Brain and mind are very different anyway.

How do you slow your brain down?

I slow my mind down by being in nature. As much as possible. Which is partly why I live where I live – on top of a hillside, off grid, in rural Spain. Pottering about outside and doing odd jobs is good for that too. And walking.

Which two fields should talk more to one another? What should they talk about?

Philosophy and everything, in particular economics and technology. Those two fields tend to display woeful ignorance of the assumptions they make. A good conversation with practical philosophers could help them, and us, sort a few things out.

[Ed note: I wholeheartedly endorse this statement.]

What’s something everyone could do with a bit more of?

Peace and quiet. Pause, in a word.

What’s something everyone could do with a bit less of?

Stuff. And the desire to be ‘productive’.

What’s the last thing you changed your mind on?

Zoom. Actually I have probably changed my mind more recently (I do that every day) but I when lockdown started I was uninterested in Zoom and thought it couldn’t be of any use to me. I was wrong. Big time. Zoom is just a long thin room…. Just a design constraint, like any other and it actually has advantages over physical presence in some respects (and of course disadvantages too). 

Everyone’s a bit mad. How are you mad?

Quite mad. In the sense that my whole life, all the way back to age 16, I have never seen things the way I am ‘meant’ to, or have been ‘told to’. So what seems normal to me seems crazy to others. I did subjects at school that didn’t go together. I left a plum job in a top agency (BBH) when I was a rising star in the planning department and had just won an IPA award. Everyone thought I was nuts.

I worked for an agency in Scotland from my home in Argentina, remote connecting once a day (and getting $3,000 phone bills) in 1994 when the internet still only really existed in academic and nerdy circles.

I started a business with someone the day I met him. I asked my wife to marry me when we had only spent a few weeks together. We decided to move to the countryside to live on a mountain, where there was no electricity or any other services in about 15 minutes. 

And so on. So, pretty maverick or unusual, if not actually mad.

What gives you hope?

Connection. Francisco Varela said it brilliantly: “When a biological system comes under pressure, the way to make it more healthy is to connect more of it to itself.”

Also, the change I have seen in the general understanding and interest in the kinds of ideas that I think are the future. Basically our growing understanding and acceptance of a complex adaptive system as a way of understanding ourselves, the world we live in and our relationship to it.

Command and control is over. Even if most people don’t realise that yet.

Thanks Robert!

🍬 Link love

  • This one’s for the fans.

  • Here for the plant memes.

  • I want to be this guy when I grow up.

  • You think you have weird interests? Well.

  • This matters.

😽 Furry feels

Take care,


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