Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

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Farewell, Agrilyst. Hello, Dwell & Lightstock!

Yesterday, April 20th, was my last day at Agrilyst.

I’ll try not to be a tech industry cliché with an overwrought blog post about leaving one job and “moving on to new adventures.” But I do want to commemorate my 21 months at Agrilyst with some standout memories:

  • 🐻 My first company retreat at Bear Mountain State Park, just a few days after I joined, where I laughed harder than I can ever remember laughing as we played ridiculous team-building games. That was when I realized that the environment at Agrilyst was going to be much different than I was used to.
  • 📈 Seeing how much traction our annual State of Indoor Farming survey would get, and being really proud of my role in bringing the website and PDF to life.
  • 👥 Working with all those great people. I won’t list them all by name, but I feel truly privileged to have been able to work with such a smart, driven, caring group of colleagues.
  • 🗝 Doing an escape room as a team-building exercise. The resulting pictures are ridiculous.
  • 🚒 Sleeping at a creepy Airbnb in Brooklyn during one of our company on-sites. It was a reconditioned old firehouse, which sounds cool and Ghostbusters-esque until you get there and realize that the pipes made a noise like a tea kettle the entire night.
  • 📸 Going to Indoor Ag Con in Las Vegas and finding out we had Agrilyst groupies. Seriously — one customer rushed up to our booth and insisted on getting a picture with us to send home.
  • 😊 Hearing from customers who genuinely loved our product. When doing product work, it’s easy to fixate on everything you know could be better, and forget to appreciate everything that’s already working. Having customers tell you they’re happy is a good way to snap out of that.

When I started at Agrilyst I’d been reading a lot of Michael Pollan books, and this job seemed like the perfect way to fuse my skills and talents with my interest in the food and agriculture industry. I love that I can say that I worked for a company that genuinely cares for farmers, and is doing something important to help feed the next billion humans.

So what’s next?

Jed Bartlet putting on his jacket

I’ll be joining the team at Little Lea, a company that builds two products:

Lightstock, a stock photography site aimed at churches and other faith organizations. Their photos are really solid, and free of the cheesiness that has unfortunately become a hallmark of church graphic design — other organizations source images from them too, including National Geographic and Penguin Random House.

Dwell is an audio Scripture app — think Audible or Overcast, but specifically for the Bible. It started as a Kickstarter, and became the fourth most highly-backed app of all time. This is something I’ve wanted for a while, ever since I tried to find a good audio Bible and found one read by James Earl Jones… only to realize that it had background music of cheap MIDI renditions of early 90s worship songs. Dwell is the remedy to that. Think of it as NeuBible for audio.

If you know me well, you probably know that I’m passionate about helping the Church pursue excellence. For too long, believers have been willing to settle for music, art, and design that’s a pale imitation of what the rest of the world has to offer. In my conversations with the Dwell/Lightstock team, I was impressed by their dedication to doing truly excellent work — not because they want to outdo anyone, but because they want to do justice to their calling. I love that. I’m thrilled to be joining such a team — I think I can both learn a lot and offer a lot. And I’m looking forward to doing my part for a cause I care about — helping the Church to rekindle its love and appreciation of beauty.

Let’s go!

Asking the Right Questions

So much of my design career has hinged on writing. My first real exposure in the design industry came from writing opinion pieces for The Industry; my first job in a design agency came after the CEO read something I wrote and asked if I’d be willing to sit down and talk.

I’ve been writing less lately, since product work takes up most of my day and I jealously guard my personal time otherwise, but it feels good to see something I wrote in-the-wild occasionally.

You can read the post here: Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Annihilation

Southern Reach Trilogy book covers
Book covers of the Southern Reach trilogy, courtesy of Wired.

A section of the Florida coast has suddenly, inextricably reverted back to nature. All traces of human life have begun to degrade, and the region — now behind a shimmering border of unknown origin — is only accessible via a hole of indeterminate size and stability.

A government agency known as the Southern Reach has been sending in expeditions to determine the cause and properties of the phenomenon. Each expedition has failed, plagued by disappearances, deaths, cancers, and mental trauma. We pick up with the Twelfth Expedition, comprised of four women known only by their functions: the Biologist, the Anthropologist, the Surveyor, and the Psychologist. What they encounter inside the phenomenon (known as Area X) can only be described as weird.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge shoreline near Lighthouse
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, on which Area X was based. This public domain image comes from Wikipedia.

That’s the beginning of Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy by author Jeff VanderMeer. The trilogy is stranger and more unsettling than can be conveyed in those two introductory paragraphs. VanderMeer is a writer of weird fiction, picking up the mantle left by authors like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.

It’s hard to pigeonhole the trilogy into a particular genre. It’s science fiction, I suppose, but only in that it’s fiction that involves science. I’ve heard it described as “bio-horror,” which sort of fits, since it deals a lot with bizarre and macabre elements of biology: animals that appear to be plants. Plants in the shape of humans. Weird chimeras of unknown origin.

VanderMeer has crafted a world that’s so fully-realized that leaving the book feels like waking up from a dream. It’s been two months since I put down the last book, and I still find my thoughts drifting back to it.

The lighthouse. The brightness. The strange fate of Saul Evans.


There’s a movie adaptation of Annihilation coming out starring Natalie Portman, and I probably won’t see it.

It’s not that I don’t want to. I loved every page of the Southern Reach trilogy. But it was also the most unnerving, dread-inducing, existentially horrific book I’ve ever been unable to put down. VanderMeer is an expert at creating a tone of mystery permeated by fear and dread. There were parts that made me nauseous. There were parts that made me short of breath. I have no desire to see those things brought to life on-screen.

There’s also my fear that the trilogy can’t be properly adapted into film. So much of Annihilation takes place in The Biologist’s head, and so much of it involves being able to make connections between words and phrases and thoughts in the character’s interior life. For a book so thoroughly about the nature of communication, something’s bound to get lost in translation.

Finally — and this is even though Jeff VanderMeer himself has given the movie his seal of approval — the movie was written based on the first book alone, ignoring the second two in the trilogy. The trilogy was released over the course of an 8-month period, and functions as a cohesive whole. The first book is informed by the second and third, so creating a standalone work without understanding the latter two makes it a different thing than the books. I suspect it will be more of a tonal successor than a strict adaptation.


I loved the Southern Reach trilogy, but I also don’t know if I can recommend it outright. As with any media, I think it’s wise to consider how it will affect you: Will I be a better person for reading this? Will reading this be time well spent? How will this affect my spiritual life?

Had I known how disturbing the book would be, I’m not sure I would’ve chosen to continue reading it. On the other hand, had I predicted the richness of the experience, I don’t know if I could have chosen to do otherwise.

Read, Write, Communicate

I’ve always preferred to use different devices for production and consumption: I like to use the computer to create things and do work, and my tablet/phone to consume content (read articles, watch Netflix, listen to podcasts, etc).

I don’t like to muddle those two modes — it’s too easy to get sidetracked. If I use the same screen for production and consumption, it’s far too easy to start working and find myself on YouTube, or reading Hacker News.

Recently, I decided to divide up those tasks further. I don’t want to use my phone for consumption anymore, but just for communication. As I wrote previously, I want to embrace boredom, stay aware of my surroundings, and not feel compelled to spend every moment consuming information.

With that in mind, here’s the new division of labor between my devices:

  • Macbook Pro — Writing, design, code, etc. Anything industrial-grade related to work.
  • iPhone — Communication. I removed Tweetbot and Instapaper, and reinstalled Moment to remind me if I’ve spent more than 15 minutes using the phone for anything besides its intended purpose.
  • iPad Pro — Consumption. I’ve got Tweetbot, Reeder, and Instapaper installed (plus the usual video services). If I want to read, I’ll do it here.

It’s working well so far, but it’s only been a few days. Keeping the division sharp between those modes of thinking feels cleaner, somehow, than using every device for every purpose.

Increasing Optionality

One heuristic I find useful for making decisions is: will this increase or decrease my optionality?

In other words, will a given decision open up the range of future options available to me?

I have a friend who lived, for several years, off of 50% of his salary. This gave him several options that most of us don’t have:

  1. Each year he worked gave him enough money in the bank to spend a year not working, while maintaining the same quality of life. (Or, in his case, working entirely on personal projects without drawing a salary).
  2. He could take a much lower-paying job without having to adjust his lifestyle. If he found a job he was passionate about that paid only half his current salary, he could take it without downsizing his life.

Conversely, if someone is living off 100% of their salary, their options for other jobs are constrained — they either need to find work with equal or higher salary, or they need to downsize.

Debt is the prime example of a constraint on financial choices. If I take out a loan, it may increase my short-term optionality (I have more immediate funds to work with), but decrease my long-term optionality (a larger chunk of my income is now devoted to repaying debt)

Money is an easy example, but there are plenty of others:

  • If I have a pet, will it constrain my ability to travel?
  • If I take on volunteer commitments, will it constrain my ability to spend time working on a side project?
  • If I take a trip and plan out what I’m doing every hour, will it hamper my ability to make choices in-the-moment and do what seems interesting?

I suppose this is all related to opportunity cost — time and resources are finite, so we can’t do one thing without reducing our bandwidth to do other things. Optionality is about understanding your priorities.

It strikes me that life is largely built around choosing where we’re comfortable reducing our available options, in order to open up more options.

I choose to work a full-time job because, even though it reduces my available time by 40 hours a week, it increases my available resources to spend on the other 128 hours.

I choose to work on my side projects because I value them more than I value whatever diversions I could spend that time doing.

At any branch in the path, though, I still find it useful to ask myself: will this increase or decrease my range of available options?

Do One Thing

Most of us live in a constant state of Continuous Partial Attention. Rather than focusing on one thing at a time, our attention is constantly scattered among a variety of sources, each of which only has part of our focus.

We’re at work, but we’re also keeping tabs on a text chain.

We’re reading a book, but we’re also checking Twitter or Instagram every two paragraphs.

We’re in a conversation, but our eyes keep flicking up to the TV on in the background.

Maintaining a state of Continuous Partial Attention is rarely a choice, but our current media environment seems specially designed to keep us in that state. We keep our phones in our pockets like a totem, our hands and minds constantly reaching for them as soon as we feel the mildest itch of boredom.

We can no longer bear to be doing nothing. We can’t just stand in line, waiting, without checking some other source of information. We’ve sacrificed solitude — not even true solitude, but just being alone with our thoughts — at the altar of being Always On.

Checking our feeds makes us feel like we’re in control. Really, they’re just making us scattered and docile.

We need boredom. We need to give our minds the chance to do one thing at a time. Boredom is a prerequisite for creativity. Multitasking is a myth.

Ironically, it’s this same media environment that’s connected to the massive upswing in jobs that are considered “knowledge work.” And knowledge work requires more dedicated attention than other jobs. It’s hard to write, or code, or design without reaching a state of flow. And yet the things we’re writing, coding, or designing seem best suited to preventing others from reaching the same.

A professor of mine used to say:

You can’t use a hammer without getting a callous.

What’s the callous our current tools are giving us?

###All this is to say:###

I’m tired of never being fully present. This week, I’m issuing myself a challenge: only do one thing at a time.

If I’m eating, I want to be eating — not reading or watching Parks and Rec or doing something else at the same time.

If I’m working, I don’t want Twitter on in the background. Or Slack. Or email.

If I’m watching TV, I don’t want to be on my phone as well.

That’s my plan. Feel free to join me.