Jeremy Côté

Bits, ink, particles, and words.

Identity's Radius

There are experiences, commitments, environments, people, and roles which will grow your identity. There are also those that will shrink it. You won’t know which you will get in advance, but here are a few points to consider:

First, the larger your identity’s radius, the more resilient you will be in the face of setbacks. For example, if I’m struggling in my work, I can turn to my sports coaching as a way to relieve stress. But if I’m only ever working, then a setback looms large in my life. A larger radius protects against this. That being said, you can have too large of a radius, where you stretch every minute of your life to a pursuit, which gives you little room for margin. The result isn’t resilience, but brittleness.

Second, growing your identity’s radius through volunteering has done wonders in my life. It embeds me within my local community and gives me a sense of satisfaction independent from my professional work. As a coach for teenagers, I can assure you none of my players care if I’m struggling in my work. I need to be there for them, and that’s it!

Third, your identity’s radius is dynamic. You can always change it, and it will sometimes change on its own depending on the seasons of your life. A stressor can warp a small radius and make you only focus on it. A new opportunity can expand the space of possibilities for your identity. The challenge is keeping your radius large enough to not collapse under stressors but small enough such that you still have margin. In my experience, neither parts of the inequality are easy to achieve.

It’s natural that my identity’s radius will need shrink if I need to focus in a particular period of my life. But I try to remind myself that this is intentional and it has an end. Without an end date, I’m setting myself up for a miserable time.

When I get the balance right though, it feels like living on easy mode and makes me grateful for the opportunities I get in life.

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The Glue

I was almost seventeen, not an arts and crafts kind of guy, and wasn’t looking to repair anything. So you can imagine my surprise when I unwrapped a bottle of glue as a gift.

This also wasn’t from some kind but clueless family member; it was from my two soccer coaches at the end of the season. In fact, they had gotten a gift for each of my teammates, and we were opening them one by one.

Though my expression likely betrayed my puzzlement, I do have manners. What I probably did was begin making a fool of myself by inspecting the glue like it was a rare and valuable treasure. Thankfully, my coaches took pity on me and presented me their actual gift:

“We got you glue because you hold the team together.”

A decade later, I still remember the feeling of my coaches really seeing me. I wasn’t great at soccer, I was just an athlete who could run a ton. But my coaches hadn’t missed me communicating on the field, nor the effort I gave each time I was on the field. They hadn’t missed how I cared about leading my team. They saw.

My coaches could have just congratulated us on the season and that would have been fine. It would have been expected. Instead, they went further. They may have bought us physical gifts, but what they really gave us was the gift of noticing.

You can’t buy what my coaches gave me. It requires time, care, and investment in your players to even gather the raw materials to create this gift. As a coach now, they are the archetype I choose to follow.

The half-life of the memories of what a coach does on the playing field may be short, but the half-life of such a gift can endure for years. It has for me.

Thank you Mohammad Khan, Dylan Kurt, and Josh Knox for feedback on this essay.

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The Constellation of Progress

What does progress mean to you?

In November 2023, I met with my cohort for The Roots of Progress Fellowship in sunny San Francisco to tackle this question. We filled a wall with sticky notes of ideas, examples, and concepts. Certain categories of progress showed up: material, cultural, scientific, and health. We debated and discussed all morning, but ultimately we didn’t come up with a definition of progress that we all agreed on. Honestly, I’m not sure that’s even possible. Instead, we created a constellation of concepts.

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A Lighthouse Cutting Through the Fog of Overwhelm

We might have lost the basketball game, but as a coach, it was one of the most inspiring performances I’ve seen from my team.

We had no business winning. Though we were good, this team was undefeated despite playing some of the other top teams in our league. As I watched our opponents move like athletic machines during warmup, I wondered if I was going to witness a bloodbath. But my team was undaunted. I could tell you about how we played physically, how we shot better than we had all season, how we kept the game close, and how we locked down on defense. But it would be easier to just say, “We played with belief.” If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have just played average; the other team would have demolished us. We may have lost, but because my players believed in their skills and experience, they made it a much closer game than many would have predicted.

Belief isn’t just for sports. In my view, it’s a vital ingredient for creating change and making progress on some of the biggest problems we face. But this belief cannot grow out of nothing; it needs to stem from substantive data, reasoning, and knowledge. Otherwise, it’s easy to just sit back and let someone else solve our problems. The wrong kind of optimism is a liability, but the right kind propels us forward.

Getting the knowledge requires people doing the difficult work of digging through the scientific record, gathering data, and synthesizing it. It requires people like Hannah Ritchie, the Deputy Editor and Lead Researcher at Our World in Data, a non-profit that’s frankly a jewel of the internet for data exposition about the world’s problems.

As someone who has degrees in geoscience, carbon management, and global food systems, you might think that of course Hannah would be the kind of person to be optimistic. And she is, but that wasn’t always true. In her new book Not the End of the World, Hannah writes about her early universities years:

“In 2010 I started my degree in Environmental Geoscience at the university of Edinburgh. I showed up as a fresh-faced 16-year-old, ready to learn how we were going to fix some of the world’s biggest challenges. Four years later, I left with no solutions. Instead, I felt the deadweight of endless unsolvable problems. Each day at Edinburgh was a constant reminder of how humanity was ravaging the planet.” (Introduction)

She almost quit environmental science because doom dominated her worldview. After all, what’s the point in working in an area when you believe your efforts are futile? But then Hannah watched Hans Rosling present on metrics of human well-being, which changed everything for her. Rosling was showing how the world was actually getting better in many meaningful ways (such as the fraction of people living in extreme poverty and the estimated fraction of newborns that die before the age of five each year).

From there, Hannah began digging into the data more. She began zooming out, looking at historical trends instead of only reading the news. She took a job at Our World in Data, and her work over nearly a decade has led to this book.

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