Thoughts on Antoni Gaudí, Etsuro Sotoo, La Sagrada Família and finding the right ideas to work on.
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Today, we will talk about the 141-year old La Sagrada Família (and why it's worth studying the world's longest on-going construction project).
Also this week:
Hasan Minhaj vs. The New Yorker
The world’s hottest pepper
And them wild memes (including a McKinsey ad)
I visited Barcelona with my wife and kid two summers ago.
Somehow, I had never been before.
I made amends by immediately doing two things people do when they get to Barcelona: 1) stuffing my face with sangria, olives and Iberian ham; and 2) visiting the Basílica de la Sagrada Família.
The first stone for the famous church was laid in 1882 and it is currently the world’s longest ongoing construction project.
It all began with a bookseller named Josep Bocabella, who was inspired to finance the building of the church after visiting Italy and seeing magnificent Basilicas in Rome. Bocabella returned to Spain and started a project to honor Jesus, Mary and Joseph (“Sagrada Família” translates to “the Holy Family”).
Now, every major detail of the church can be attributed to the mind of legendary Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, who was born in 1852 and built over 90 structures in Barcelona (including 7 UNESCO sites).
It is an impossible task to describe the church with words. But here is a string of sentences that you should probably skip and just look at the photos below (including a perfect nostril shot taken by my son).
The entire structure looks as though it is organic and has sprung out from the earth. It features animals, humans, and plant figures that are carved into stone (in a mix of natural, gothic and modern styles).
The church has three highly-detailed facades that each portray a period of Jesus’ life (Nativity, Passion, Resurrection).
The completed structure will have 18 towers: 12 towers representing the apostles, 4 towers representing the evangelists, one tower representing the Virgin Mary, and the central tower representing Jesus Christ (at 172.5 meters, this tower will be the tallest structure in Barcelona, but Gaudí – who did not want to outshine God – designed the height to be lower than the peak of the surrounding mountains).
The central nave is an architectural wonder. Gaudí’s design resembles trees branching out towards the ceiling, creating a forest-like atmosphere. The stained-glass windows fill the interior with different hues of light (blue, red, orange) corresponding to the time of day when the sun shines on the exterior.
Gaudí initially took over construction in 1883 — one year after the original architect started on the church’s crypt — and wanted to carve the Bible into stone.
It was supposed to be a 10-year project but Gaudí soon realized that it would not be completed in his lifetime. When he died in 1926, only 1/4th of La Sagrada Família was done (this includes the Nativity Facade and 4 of the 18 towers).
A devoted Catholic, Gaudí studied the “Great Book of Nature” to understand his belief that God architected the world and applied those lessons to the Sagrada Família. It took the invention of computer assisted design (CAD) and aeronautical engineering tools at the end of the 20th century to confirm his intuitions and construct his ideas into reality.
Knowing this, Gaudí spent more than two decades perfecting each part of the Nativity facade so future generations would have a clear benchmark of quality to pursue.
It’s wild to think that a significant portion of this 141-year old structure was only built in the past few decades.
But Gaudí knew it had to be this way and often remarked that “my client” — referring to God — “is not in a hurry.”
In sum: my trip to Barcelona trip caused me to have massive indigestion but also allowed me to see the most impressive building I’ve ever seen.
I’m sure many of you that have seen it feel the same way.
If you have another favourite building, I want you to think about that structure.
Do you remember how awestruck you felt when seeing it for the first time?
Now multiply that feeling by 1,000,000x and you’ll approximate what Etsuroo Sotoo — the current chief sculptor for La Sagrada Família — felt when he first visited Barcelona in 1978.
The structure then is not what we know today.
After Gaudí’s death, La Sagrada Família was essentially put on pause for the next five decades. This period included the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Cold War and Spain’s re-entry into the international community after the death of the country’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
On his first trip to Barcelona, Sotoo was 24-years old and working as an art professor in Kyoto, Japan. He went to Spain to learn about stone carving but was so impressed by La Sagrada Família that it completely changed the trajectory of his life.
He immediately moved from Japan to Barcelona and has dedicated the past 45 years of his life to completing Gaudí’s original vision (even Gaudí only spent 43 years on the project).
Sotoo is fluent in both Spanish and Catalan, and eventually converted to Catholicism to better understand Gaudí’s mind.
Upon moving to Spain, Sotoo ingratiated himself with the architects who had been given the green light by the Spanish government to finish La Sagrada Família. His first job was chipping stone ornaments, for which he was paid very little.
“[The project leader] forced me to work for two years on a salary of two months,” Sotoo told New York Encounter in 2018. “Well, he didn’t force me. That was my will and I wanted to do it. As I went along working and restoring things, I was discovering the importance of [La Sagrada Família].”
“Back in the day, no one really cared about the Sagrada Família. There were some stones and rubble, but it was mostly an abandoned ruin. The situation lasted many decades more. No one really looked up at the Sagrada Família. Before coming to Barcelona, I knew of Gaudí but I wasn’t interested in him. Slowly, my interest in Gaudí started to grow in me. And today, it keeps growing. Gaudí talked with God about something very big and profound. To this day, no one really knows what it was about. I wanted to touch a bit of that world. Still, Gaudí is way beyond where we are today.”
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once said, “people don’t have ideas, ideas have people”.
The through-line from Gaudí to Sotoo is a great example of that expression.
The idea of La Sagrada Família is so powerful that it has sustained a single construction project for over 140 years. This idea did not die with Gaudí, but rather found many new hands to help complete the project (the original plan was for the entire structure to be finished by 2026 — the 100th anniversary of Gaudí's death — but 2030 now seems more likely).
In the same year that Sotoo first visited Barcelona, iconic Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola was working on Apocalypse Now, which was released in 1979.
Coppola's Vietnam War film was a notoriously difficult production. Actor Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack and almost died. Marlon Brando charged a massive fee, but showed up overweight, didn't read the source material, and wanted to re-write the entire ending. A typhoon hit the Philippines during production, destroying 80% of the sets. Shooting, initially scheduled for 42 days, ballooned to 238 days. Coppola mortgaged his house and gave up future royalties on The Godfather to finance the film, which went significantly over budget.
The troubled production ended up creating a masterpiece (for more on the film’s psychology, check out my podcast with Jim O'Shaughnessy and Rob Henderson)
Essayist Jed McKenna believes that Apocalypse Now — much more so than either of The Godfather films — is Coppola’s greatest work and when he truly became an artist.
Be careful what you wish for, not because you’ll get it but because you’ll be turned into the thing that can get it. It’s not a process where you just ask for something and it magically appears, it’s a process that breaks you down and rebuilds you into the right tool for the job.
I mention again the peculiar inability of some artists to understand their own creations at the highest levels at which they can be interpreted, which applies to Orwell, Coppola, Shakespeare and many others. It’s a weird thing about the co-creative partnership that the art can transcend the artist. The creation is the point, not the creator. Sometimes we’re a partner and sometimes we’re just a tool.
In this view, Coppola wasn’t equipped to make Apocalypse Now when he started filming in 1976. However, the ensuing creative and personal struggles turned him into the “right tool” to finish the job.
Another salient example of someone becoming the “right tool” for the job is Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes.
In 1985, a 27-year old Watterson had his first Calvin & Hobbes comic strip published in a newspaper. Over the next decade, he drew 3,160 strips. Or about 316 a year. Or like really close to one a day according to my elementary math skills.
Every waking hour of Watterson’s life was consumed by creating what many consider to be the greatest comic strip ever. Completely burnt out, Watterson walked away from Calvin & Hobbes forever in 1995. Other than the recent release of a new graphic novel titled The Mysteries, Watterson has been almost entirely off the grid for the past 28 years.
In an article for The American Conservative titled “Why Bill Watterson Vanished”, Nic Rowan writes:
By Watterson’s own admission, he cannot accurately recall a whole decade of his life because of his “Ahab-like obsession” with his work. “The intensity of pushing the writing and drawing as far as my skills allowed was the whole point of doing it,” he says. “I eliminated pretty much everything from my life that wasn’t the strip.” While Watterson’s wife, Melissa Richmond, organized everything around him, he furthered his isolation, burrowing ever more deeply into the strip’s world. There was no other way, he believed, to keep its integrity absolute. “My approach was probably too crazy to sustain for a lifetime,” he says, “but it let me draw the exact strip I wanted while it lasted.”
Think about that.
Watterson was so deep in his work that he could not "accurately recall" the peak creative period of his life. During that decade, he was turned into the "right tool" for the art of Calvin & Hobbes.
If ideas have people and people become the “right tool” to express ideas into the world, then it is very important that we choose what ideas influence us.
This applies not only to artistic pursuits.
There are archetypes of lawyers, bankers, consultants, coders, doctors, small-business owners and entrepreneurs who work 80+ hours a week.
They’ve chosen these professions through a combination of ambition, duty, value alignment, money and social pressures.
However, people often end up in careers that require a huge time commitment due to random chance, path dependence or inertia.
Either knowingly or not, they mold themselves — through endless hours of work — into the “right tool” for that job.
Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike wrote a great blog in 2013 titled “Career Advice”, including this passage:
Jobs at software companies are typically advertised in terms of the difficult problems that need solving, the impact the project will have, the benefits the company provides, the playful color of the bean bag chairs. Likewise, jobs in other fields have their own set of metrics that they use to position themselves within their domains.
As a young person, though, I think the best thing you can do is to ignore all of that and simply observe the older people working there.
They are the future you. Do not think that you will be substantially different. Look carefully at how they spend their time at work and outside of work, because this is also almost certainly how your life will look. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often young people imagine a different projection for themselves.
Look at the real people, and you’ll see the honest future for yourself.
Marlinspike essentially describes the job-finding heuristic of “do you want your boss’ boss’ job?”.
If not, then you should probably consider trying something new or you’ll end up being molded into “the right tool” for that work. Inertia and path dependency will make it very difficult to change.
Three quick follow-on thoughts: 1) None of this is advice because I hate giving advice; 2) I’m not saying people need to plan out their entire lives; and 3) I’m just saying if you are going to spend 5-10 hours a day potentially for decades on something, it’s probably wise to reflect on that “something”.
Before Sotoo visited Barcelona, he probably thought he would be an art teacher or a well-known art impresario in Japan for the rest of his life.
This is not to diminish Sotoo's role as a teacher in Kyoto, but finding the right idea to work on has been worth all of our collective time. Nearly 5 million people pay to see the Sagrada Família every year, and another 10 million view it from the outside.
Thankfully, Sotoo visited and became the perfect tool to bring La Sagrada Família to completion. This has become even more necessary as Gaudí's original plans, including models and drawings (many of which were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War) have been exhausted. Sotoo now strives to see the world through Gaudí's eyes, who was the original "right tool" for La Sagrada Família.
“I must cut stone to be able to answer this question that burns inside of me like a magma that I can’t control,” Sotoo says in the aforementioned Nowness interview. “I ask myself, ‘Why did I feel such an urge to cut stone back [when I first went to Spain]?’ After decades, I concluded that I needed someone to cut me, to deform me or transform me. So, I realized that by cutting stone, I was sculpting myself.”
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Links and Memes
Hasan Minhaj vs. The New Yorker: Before diving into this story, I want to highlight that I worked with Hasan earlier this year. When Trevor Noah stepped down as host of The Daily Show, Hasan was one of the guest hosts filling in. I helped to write a segment about financial hucksters.
During the summer, it looked like Hasan was in the pole position to become the new full-time host of The Daily Show. According to Vanity Fair, the deal wasn't finalized due to the writers' strike.
Then last month, The New Yorker wrote what has turned out to be a full-on hit piece. In it, Hasan told writer Clare Malone that he took creative licenses (e.g. changed the timing and characters in a story to make it more entertaining and impactful) with some of his stand-up comedy including: 1) being rejected from prom because of his race; 2) a story about anthrax being sent to his family; and 3) encounters with federal agents.
I read the article a few weeks after it came out but didn’t think much of it (I didn’t speak with Hasan after reading it, either). The idea of taking creative licenses in entertainment and comedy is pretty common place (Hasan described it as “emotional truth” vs. “factual truth”). The framing of the article was definitely on the negative side.
Turns out the article was a very big deal for The Daily Show. It raised questions about how much comedians are allowed to bend the truth. The gray area for Hasan is that he is both a story-telling comedian (stand-up specials) and a political and news-related comedian (The Patriot Act, The Daily Show). In the latter category, there is very little room for bending the truth.
What’s the fallout from the The New Yorker article? It looks like Hasan is now out of the running for The Daily Show hosting job.
Here’s the crazy twist, though: Hasan kept them receipts and had recorded the entire conversation with Malone. On Thursday, he released a 21-minute video showing how she mashed together quotes, took comments completely out of context and ignored primary evidence that refuted her points (Hasan also addresses his responsibilities as a comedian that covers news and acknowledges that he should have been more careful).
I have 2 thoughts on the situation:
The New Yorker did Hasan dirty: Top level, it looks like he lost The Daily Show job because a New Yorker reporter decided to investigate a stand-up comedy prom story from two decades ago. Honestly, what an absolute waste of investigative resources. Everyone knows how much bad behaviour there is in Hollywood (like, actual bad behaviour). Why waste all of The New Yorker’s social and political capital on something rather benign and industry-standard? Especially, when it turns out the reporting was half-assed. Also, the timing of the article makes it pretty obvious someone was trying to railroad Hasan’s shot at the hosting job. The New Yorker was one of the few legacy media organizations that I thought wouldn’t traffic in clickbait hit pieces. Where are the other “what did this comedian say in their act” deep dives? It does look like the publication carried water for a competing candidate (I can confirm, I am not one of those competing candidates).
Go direct: Again, when I first read the piece, it just came off as “eh, it’s comedy and entertainment…they have certain licenses.” Certainly, the story’s framing didn’t look great. Hasan himself says he would hate the person that was portrayed in the article, but it is clear from the audio recording that much of the conversation is wildly misconstrued. From the video, it seems that Hasan’s team realized a hit piece was coming and they probably should have rebutted it right away. That’s what Barstool founder Dave Portnoy — whatever you think of him — recently did with the Washington Post. He caught wind that they were working on a negative piece and posted his full chat with the journalist before the article came out. The video of the conversation got ~50m views and completely neutered the published article (because nothing could be taken out of context with the full audio in the public domain).
Whether or not you are a fan of Hasan’s work, I’d watch the rebuttal video because it is a surgical deep dive into how interview-to-text can be completely warped.
World’s hottest pepper: The Guinness Book of World Records just crowned Pepper X the hottest pepper in the world, hitting a Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) of 2,693,000.
Here are the SHUs for other hot and spicy items:
Red bell pepper: 0
Frank’s Red Hot Sauce: 450
Jalapeño pepper: 8,000
Cayenne pepper: 30,000
Pepper Spray: 2,000,000
My hip-hop holiday Spotify playlist: 1,000,000,000,0000
SHU measures the number of times the capsaicin content in a chili pepper needs to be diluted with sugar water droplets before it is no longer detectable.
For example: Tabasco needs to be diluted 5,000x while Pepper X needs to be diluted over 2,000,000x (the previous record-holder was Carolina Reaper pepper, which has a SHU of 1,641,183).
Both Pepper X and the Reaper — which held the title from 2013 to 2023 — were created by Ed Currie, a pepper breeder based in South Carolina (“pepper breeder”, what glorious job). Each took about ten years to make using a selective plant breeding process.
Last week, “Hot Ones” Sean Evans hosted Currie and tried this 2,693,000 SHU monstrosity. Based on my memory of being pepper-sprayed as a dumb youth, I can safely say that there is no amount of money you could pay me to voluntarily eat a Pepper X.
Here some other baller links for you:
How Netflix won: Scott Galloway writes about Netflix’s bounce back over the past year and how its current valuation ($174B) is more than Disney, Discovery, and Paramount combined.
Cybertruck: Interesting look at “why is the Tesla Cybertruck designed the way it is?”
Serious musical skills: Megadeath metal drummer Dirk Verbeuren listens to “Mr. Brightside” for the first time (but without the drums). After one listen-through, he writes down the song’s structure by counting the bars and naming the parts. Then crushes his own great version. Very cool to see his creative process.
…and them fire tweets / X posts:
Fun fact: the most traffic I’ve ever driven from a single post to my AI-powered research app Bearly.AI is this incredibly dumb tweet:
Finally, John Oliver’s show “Last Week Tonight” did a report on McKinsey, including one of the funniest corporate parody ads you will ever see.