The best speaker at Epsilon Connect 2023 was my Uber driver.
The conference was filled with smart, curious, and successful people from all walks. Finance, politics, tech, medicine, music, small business, big business, (insert a “holy crap you did/do that?!” profession), and it was awesome to all be at Vanderbilt together.
But this Uber lady.
Maybe you don’t know how it gets in Nashville in the summer. 90-something degrees. Impending thunderstorm complete with sawed-off warning shot thunder. The official cocktail hour ended 30 minutes ago, the unofficial one is already underway, and the ride you politely declined 60 minutes ago ain’t coming back.
You find yourself hailing an Uber under an oak tree straight out of the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Lot. It’s barely shielding the rain, and despite deserving to be mercy-struck by lightning, you’ve calculated it probably won’t because it’s short and the gods are as nice as the people around here. Or so you hope.
In its shelter, you call your significant other to assure them, “I’m still alive – at least for now!”
I’ll take this story back to being about me now. And my uber lady.
The lifted pickup truck pulls up (Nashville, I adore you), I hop in, she says, “Buckle up honey” at the same time my girlfriend Val is telling me, “Don’t forget to wear a seatbelt” over the phone. As the belt-buckle clicks and my eyes land on the bobble-head chihuahua on her dashboard, I feel both loved and safe.
My driver is early-retirement age, with short grey hair and an “I needed a few extra bucks and something to do after stepping down from being a middle school teacher” vibe. I ask the polite-yet-standard question, “So how long have you been driving for Uber? Do you like it?”
This Uber lady. My UBER lady. Best speaker at the conference. Here’s her opening:
“I’ve been driving for a few years now. Ever since I had to retire. I used to drive big rigs. It’s nice I get to drive still. But I sure do miss driving my big truck.”
Me, doing my best Grant Williams, “Aww, that’s so cool you knew what you loved and found a smaller way to still do it. Why’d you stop driving the big rigs?”
The truck made the turn onto a highway. Which is notable because of what she said next.
“I stopped driving after I had my accident. It was a bad one. Couldn’t drive anymore after that.”
Sweet Nashville gods, don’t fail me now.
“That’s awful, I’m so sorry to hear that.” I glanced at the GPS cradled on the dash. We had 20 minutes to go and were doing 60 in light rain. If I was going down, I might as well get her story first. “Were you hurt?”
Epsilon Connect is basically a gathering for people who have figured out how to make models work for them. Not in a mercenary way, but in a “We all have found success without hurting others, so how do we now make others successful while reducing the success-via-hurting-others models that seem to be everywhere and making people like us sad/jaded/cynical when we don’t want to be” way.
Or at least that’s why I’m there and hoping it’s why the others are there too.
I believe most people’s default mode is to care. I believe you don’t have to go to Church™ about it. I also believe you need people in your life who mutually care. What makes the Epsilon crowd so enticing is we all are trying to figure out how to help others care productively.
Not to escape reality. Not to be shielded from reality. To help reality be less annoying.
You think something is wrong with the world and you’re not wrong to think that. But you know you’re not right about it either. The expression “the map is not the terrain” is useful here. We can model reality (or markets, or elections, or…) but there’s always a gap between the details on the map and the recently fallen branch on the sidewalk just outside your house.
The gaps represent the statistician’s favorite fudge factor. They’re the comedian’s room for exaggerations. They’re the musician’s laggiest kick drum or rushiest snare. The gaps define the model as much as they’re poetically used to explain the reality. We need the gaps. And we need to talk about the gaps. So badly that we gathered for a conference about them.
Epsilon is the technical term for the variable in an equation that closes the gap between the model and the reality.
Epsilon Theory is the idea we can’t talk about the models without also talking about the gaps between where the map’s resolution ends and the real world gets all nuanced. All productivity AND all counter-productivity is tied to the gaps, to the epsilon, to the differences between the map and how we talk about the map.
Epsilon Connect is a conference for people who think about the gaps. How the gaps have benefited them. How the gaps can benefit others. How the gaps can be used to hurt others. How we can take models that help without hurting and try to spread this gospel of (lower-case, non-trademarked) love in all of our communities.
OK, now back to the Uber lady. I know you’re really here for her presentation.
A recklessly speeding driver hit her truck head on. The driver didn’t make it. She hurt her back. The legal settlement was minimized because she didn’t say the right settlement-maximizing words in her police report. The confidence gap of the dead driver, the interpretive gaps of the police report and legal system.
She’d seen death and misfortune before. With both of her parents, who she was cursed and blessed to be with when each of them passed. Not in the peaceful way we all want to go out either. But that’s life in the gaps – finite and beyond expectation.
Her husband is trans. The whole family – the kids, the grandkids, and the extended family accept her husband for who she is. Except my driver’s sister. It’s causing a rift. One that feels like the original pain that kept it all a secret 30 years ago. The gaps have their own dynamics, and they change as much across models as they do across realities.
I was getting seriously schooled on gaps in the backseat of a pick-em-up taxi. It was the whole conference in a 23-minute autobiography.
And I can’t skip this last part from the end of my ride
On the topic of her marriage, she told me, “Some people thinks it’s strange we stayed together. I know that. But nobody has ever loved me like she has. She always was and always will be my husband and what do I care if she wants to wear a dress?”
I may or may not have cried a little at this point.
The gaps. They’ll break your heart. Wide open. If only you’ll let them.
We pulled inside the fence at my destination. I thanked her for sharing, she thanked me “for listening to an old trucker babble.” She got a big tip. I got a bigger one. An uber-big one.
Epsilon Connect wasn’t just about the big ideas, cool people, and the amazing new research project they’re rolling out at Vanderbilt (FABLE!). Epsilon Connect was about what my buddy Scott said to me after we walked out of one of the sessions,
It all comes back to how you can’t change THE world, but you can change YOUR world, and sometimes THEIR world. And however you’re changing it, if you do it over and over, it adds up. Everybody here gets reverse-engineering what’s adding up, where, and wants to ask why. This is so cool.
My uber lady got it too. We’re all in this together. With clear eyes, full hearts, and a Friday night bright dream to not lose.
We have a lot of work to do until next year’s conference. Buckle up honeys.
ps. I shared this post on LinkedIn too. If we’re not connected over there, come find me.
pss. there’s some older notes on Epsilon Theory “stuff” here
psss. If you didn’t catch the link above, the work they do on their blog/community, Epsilon Theory, has had and continues to have a profound impact on my thinking.