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A $10,000 prize to practice swimming in ideas
Writing is the most essential skill for self-advocacy, community growth and true diversity in a field. Yet writing has been terribly taught. Here is a challenge to encourage a new boldness.
This is a repost of an essay that Paul Reginato and I wrote on the Homeworld Blog.
We’re thrilled to announce Homeworld Ideas, a $12,500 writing challenge inviting you to share your visions for how biotechnology can enable a sustainable way of life and a thriving biosphere. We welcome all forms of writing, from essays to fiction, from technical experts and non-experts alike. We’re grateful that our friend Niko McCarty (Codon) is leading Homeworld Ideas with us, and that our friends at Pillar VC are contributing runners-up prizes. (Click here for more details, and here to apply.)
You might wonder, why would Homeworld, a field-building non-profit for climate biotech, host a writing challenge? Let’s ask two little fish:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
Sometimes an idea is so poignant it becomes its own cliche. Most scientists have wondered at the notion that “What I cannot create, I do not understand” (Richard Feynman in the 1980s). In corporate commentary, we still hear that “software is eating the world” (Marc Andreesen, 2009) as the new wave of AI technologies further expands the role of code in our economy. In computing, we wonder about the future of “Moore’s Law” (Gordon Moore, 1998). As we muster the courage to face our biggest collective problems, we remember that “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood” (Marie Curie, early 1900s). David Foster Wallace’s 2005 ultraclassic This is Water, from which the story of the fishes is taken, presents an idea so profound and well put that “what is water?” has become a buzzphrase across America reminding us to take stock of our context. Wallace was a magnificent, generational talent who showed us new bounds of how good the art of writing can be. And now, as a climate tech community discoursing on ideas for our collective future, we must realize that the water in which we swim is writing.
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It’s writing that stitches evidence into arguments. It’s writing that clarifies our own ideas to ourselves. It’s writing that explains our view of the world. It’s writing that lets us travel between the ideas in each other’s heads. Beyond discourse, writing is an essential skill of self-advocacy. It’s writing that wins us grants. It’s writing that gets us a reply when we reach out. The poignancy and clarity of our writing gets people interested in what’s in our heads, and writing informs people how to help us on our missions. In a very real way, writing is manifesting.
It’s strange, then, that we never truly teach ourselves to swim. In school, we learn to write to prove that we learned what we were told to learn. When we wrote book reports in middle school, we saw writing as a test of comprehension. (See this great lecture to help you break out of this mindset.) In the course of Paul’s technical undergraduate degree, he was never required to write an essay. Even in the best graduate schools for science, we are barely, if at all, taught to write.
In our journey of growing Homeworld Collective, we have observed the career arcs of hundreds of climate biotech practitioners. It is a harsh truth that some individuals get much farther than others because they are simply better self-advocates. As Dan wrote, one mental model is to think of one’s professional capacity as a blend of craftsmanship and gamesmanship: craftsmanship is how good you are at doing something, and gamesmanship is how good you are at making people care. We used writing to communicate the ideas that got Homeworld Collective funded and started. Writing is an essential component of gamesmanship and, most importantly, writing is a skill that can be taught.
We’ll say it stronger: Writing MUST be taught and celebrated! If we are to truly encourage a diversity of perspectives and leverage modern connectivity to its fullest potential, then we need to help people, especially in the STEM fields, put down their pipettes long enough to effectively articulate their ideas. Encouraging better writing skills can be a way to help people think better, facilitate a richer discourse, and get better support to practitioners with good ideas.
Here’s the catch: it’s scary to write creatively. You’re probably going to suck at it initially.
It’s OK to be bad. It’s unavoidable. When you start writing creatively and you cringe at how your ideas hit the page, we urge you to take two minutes to listen to Ira Glass talk about Taste. His point is that there is a gap between your taste and your abilities whenever you start something new, “Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap.” Homeworld Collective is thrilled to put up a cash prize to encourage you to build the volume of work it will take to become a great writer.
One of our writing heroes has also become a dear friend, and we are thrilled to be co-creating this writing challenge with him. Niko McCarty has synthetic biology degrees from Imperial College and Caltech, and an MA in science journalism. He’s worked his way up from a starving writer in NYC into the writer that every biologist reads. Niko’s mentorship has also made us better writers, and we are inspired by his belief that every person that has great ideas can become a great writer. We’re thrilled that he is leaning into his passion for education to raise others up.
You can read the details of the essay contest here, but the TL;DR is that we’ve given intentionally minimal guidance on the form your writing must take. It’s okay if your writing is already published elsewhere, you can submit under a pseudonym if you wish, the grand prize is $10,000 with $2,500 of additional prizes thanks to our good friends at Pillar. Have fun and try your hardest to write something you are proud of.
So while Wayne Gretzky skates to where the puck is going and Emily Dickinson dwells in possibility, we encourage you to consider that the pipette may be nothing without the pen. We hope that one day, you too will have produced an idea that shines so beautifully it becomes its own cliche.
Swim on, friends. Reach out if we can help you on your journey.
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