Do you feel overwhelmed by the flow of information? So do I. So does everyone. People complain about it all the time. These days, just keeping up with the news feels being a hamster stuck running on a wheel. There's so much!
Instead of complaining, we should be grateful. Six hundred years ago, hardly anybody could read or write. What few books or parchments that did exist had been painstakingly written by hand and were cherished as treasures in the libraries of castles and churches. Because knowledge was so scarce, ignorance was rampant. Neither science nor the arts progressed quickly because information moved so slowly that any new innovation could not spread quickly and collaboration, if it happened at all, happened through messages that took months to deliver.
Can you imagine what it was like? If we complain bitterly about common ignorance today, could we have fathomed how profoundly backward those earlier societies were? Perhaps that smacks of chronological snobbery. But the right way to look at it, I think, is to appreciate those remarkable people whose overcame even these barriers and obstacles to bring to market those game-changing innovations that moved society forward.
Let's recite a few of them. For old times' sake.
One of the most significant technology platforms ever built was the printing press in the mid 15th century. Newspapers didn't begin in earnest until nearly two hundred years later, in the early 17th century. Typewriters didn't come onto the scene till the 19th century, along with the telegraph and modern postal service. Then, in the 20th century, media exploded. Radio. Television. Personal computers, the internet, and email.
Giving yourself some historical context is an important exercise. Looking at the broad sweep, even with these few data points, it is obvious that the pace of innovation in media and communications platforms has both accelerated and democratized over time, creating an exponential proliferation in content to absorb.
Bring balance to the force
Let's think about what's happening in terms of trade.
Once upon a time, there was almost no trade in information. Very few people bothered to produce or share original content because it was difficult and expensive. Then, as technology gradually made it easier, more people entered the market who wanted to both produce and consume knowledge and thought. Now that technology has made it almost frictionless, the media market has become more fragmented and the growth in supply has totally outpaced the growth in demand.
Now, for what it's worth, I think this is all progress, it's great, and I'm happy.
What I struggle with is that the information overflow feels like drinking from a fire hydrant. I am so inundated with the thinking of others that I have to remind myself to create enough space and solitude in my life to get clear about what I think. Because reading is easier than writing, it is easy to just keep consuming the thinking of others, as I flip through stories on Flipboard, than to produce original thinking of my own. As a result, what I think gets drowned in the noise.
So, to put it back in terms of trade flows, we're all net importers of thinking. We're consuming way more than we're producing. We're running up a massive, structural deficit.
Now per David Ricardo, specialization is a good thing, and there are gains from trade. We may be a net importer of corn, but we're a net exporter of cotton, and on balance, we're even, but there's more of both.
But I'd challenge you to ask yourself if thinking is one of those commodities you want to exclusively import. Domestic production is qualitatively different. It is strategic, but if you kill it, because other people can produce it more cheaply than you, it is dangerously hard to bring it back. Even a libertarian like myself can indulge in trade protectionism when it comes to something like national defense. And, in my estimation, this is that important.
Writing down, then sharing, what you think and taking time to formulate your ideas on a wide range of issues - from business to politics, art and science - with your social circle is so crucial to your intellectual and creative independence, that I would never give it up. To me, that would be an act of surrender. I will not abdicate sovereignty! I welcome the trade of other minds, but I will not be invaded by them. I will not let my own capacity to produce diminish just because my appetite for knowledge, information, and ideas is already entirely filled by the thinking of others.
Exercise harder, don't eat less
Let's shift the metaphor to diet.
We've all become gluttons of media. We listen so much. We watch so much. We read so much. We consumer information, knowledge, and ideas at a pace so rapid that most people hardly pause to chew and digest.
Right there, the metaphor almost prompts us to spend more time in reflection. We're not being kind to our intellectual and creative digestive tracts, if you will.
The answer, I think, to our diet problem is not to eat less, but to exercise harder. Information is good. It doesn't get stored as fat. It gets stored as synapses and nodes in your brain. It is healthy.
But what's the point?!
Why bother eating if you never spend energy? When we consume information, we are absorbing intellectual energy and storing it for later use. But if we never use it, it is just a waste. It may be pleasurable, like eating, but gluttony is not an attractive quality.
Once I realized this, I felt sick. There's something so wrong about how we're living. Since my parents sent me off to pre-school, I've been absorbing information. In high school and college I crammed my brain full of good stuff. Incredibly thought provoking stuff! Stuff that sparked ideas. Stuff that made me think. But the more they forced down my throat, the less time they left for me to create anything of my own. When are we supposed to use all that intellectual energy that we've been storing? When are we supposed to exercise? Our education system has made us obese!
Once I realized this, my appetite for consuming media has gone down dramatically. I have to force myself to keep up with what my friends and intellectuals and the media are saying and thinking. The equal and opposite reaction: my appetite for creating original thinking soared. I have more drafts in my blog than I know what to do with.
Because I've been so busy starting a business, I temporarily dropped all my discipline in other areas of life. But now, I'm starting to slowly bring it back. And it feels so good. It is such a release. It feels like getting out of debt. It feels like using pent-up energy. It feels healthy. It feels strong.
If you agree with this article, there's only two rational responses, in my mind.
Make a commitment to blog. Make it a habit to turn all that information and thinking you're consuming into something productive of your own.
Start creating expressions on something like The New Hive. Let all that restless creative energy take shape and share it with the world.
Time to make a confession. Founders of companies often have odd insecurities. One of mine is whether I work hard enough. By relative comparison, I do. Friends and colleagues have had to tell me to relax, coax me into taking a break or doing something recreational, or what have you… But I just can't shake this sense, that until I've given all of me - all my energy and creativity and passion - to this business, it will not be enough to satisfy myself. Like an athlete who cannot bring himself to finish a race with any strength left inside him, exerts himself at the extreme maximum, striving to reach the limit of his capacity, the uttermost ceiling of his ability, so that when he finishes, he knows that he has held nothing back, that he could not have gone faster.
Last night, one of us shared this video with the rest of the team, of a Scottish bicyclist named Graeme Obree who is attempting to break the world speed record by reaching 100MPH on flat-land.
When I could actually make out what he was saying through his thick Scottish accent, I couldn't help but get carried away with his passion for the endeavor. You could describe it so many ways. As insane. Ambitious. Or heroic.
I love celebrating human achievement. There is something so invigorating and refreshing about these rare individuals who rise so far above the rest of us to reach unimaginable heights of excellence and greatness. But not everyone feels this way. Sometimes, their peers, and even those closest to them, struggle with feelings of jealousy and resentment.
When I watched this interview, it came with the following observation:
“*When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.* These words of wisdom from Jonathan Swift certainly apply to Graeme Obree and his treatment in the world of cycling.”
If you look him up, you can read about his innovations in bicycle design, which allow the rider to pedal in radical new positions, and how they refuse to recognize them. You can debate whether this decision was just or not. That's not the point.
The point is that we should honor Mr. Obree, and others like him, for their genius, rather than denigrating them as ruthless, eccentric, and obsessed.
Maybe they are. So be it. Regardless of what you call it, it feels good and right, and it is beautiful to behold. Let them not be guilty. Let them take pride.
This treatment of our betters with contempt - it is a great mystery to me. Why do we feel this urge to bring them down to our level? To discredit their success? Are we jealous? Do they make us feel insecure? What are our reasons?
But I digress. Back to the subject. Do we work hard enough?
When I hear Mr. Obree talk about his work, I can just picture him working late into the night then waking from his bed to ride before the break of dawn. I feel that he is driven by the same demons as I. But bicycling is his startup. He shares that urge to wring every last drop of effort from his body and his mind, that same overwhelming desire to give everything he's got. And I am sure, like me, he never feels satisfied. When he's not working, he's silently chastising himself for not doing more. He's thinking: 'Better get back to it! Someone, somewhere, is training harder…'
A name I recently stumbled upon is that of Mr. Edwin Land, one of the great inventors of the 20th century, and the father of the Polaroid Corporation. After reading a little about him on the internet, I have taken up a curiosity with him, and want to read his biography, Insisting on the Impossible. That title, all on its own, is inspiration enough.
What piqued my interest most this about him was this description:
“During his time at Polaroid, Land was notorious for his marathon research sessions. When Land conceived of an idea, he would experiment and brainstorm until the problem was solved with no breaks of any kind. He needed to have food brought to him and to be reminded to eat. He once wore the same clothes for eighteen consecutive days while solving problems with the commercial production of polarizing film. As the Polaroid company grew, Land had teams of assistants working in shifts at his side. As one team wore out, the next team was brought in to continue the work.”
There's no way I'm working hard enough.
Stop making excuses for yourself. Stop letting other people deter you from your objective. Start ignoring distractions. Let your mind dwell on your work, become one with it, and penetrate it completely.
There's something so powerful about ruthless, eccentric, obsession. What if it is the defining character trait of genius?
Gandhi was awfully skinny when he said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” He had total commitment. His entire being was bent on success. The sort of willpower it takes to starve yourself for a cause is the sort of willpower Edwin Land applied to his research.
Among exceptional people, the extreme work ethic that Obree, Land, and Gandhi share is not the exception, but the rule. Look at Bruce Lee. The man knew no limits, he was maniacal and took training for peak physical performance in martial arts to a new extreme. Reference Edison, who churned out one landmark invention after another from his lab. Or Jobs. We know how unpopular his obsession made him.
I look to Steve Jobs as a role model, as do many entrepreneurs. I suppose it does get annoying to those around me, and even a bit ridiculous. I am often chided for it, and I don't know how to respond when they send around this comparison of Jack Dorsey and Steve Jobs. Part of me wants to giggle. Part of me wants to defend Dorsey. Part of me feels called out and embarrassed for copying him in my own way. Part of me feels like I am not copying him enough, and I should give Dorsey a run for it.
(Anyways, what would a post like this be without a Jobs anecdote? Incomplete. So I shall shamelessly proceed.)
One of the things that Steve's life brings into clear relief is how closely our vices are connected to our virtues. I think he realized this, so he didn't try to hide or disguise who he was. What was said of Land could have been said of him, he insisted on the impossible. Work dominated his life. He had unreasonable expectations for himself, his colleagues, his business, his customers, and for technology itself. He would not take “No” for an answer. But he expected others to take it from him. He was impatient. Some call that a vice. But he indulged himself. He turned it into a virtue. By sheer force of determination, effort, and personality, he bent the universe to his will and made it happen.
I won't disguise how much I admire that quality. It makes me think of one of Paul Johnson's classic treatment of the theme Heroes, which contains some of my favorite portraits, including a section on Alexander and Caesar which he appropriately dubbed Earthshakers. Conquerors. Empire builders. Imperialists. These are dirty words in modern society. And perhaps rightly so. One has to judge each Napoleon by how and why he seized and used political power. But whatever you think of this Napoleonic personality, call it a disorder even, those who possess it have achieved astonishing results. They have built empires, both literally and figuratively, that have changed the world. And at the root of most human achievement, you will find a little Napoleon, laboring into the night.
As an aside, I am not quite finished yet with reading Atlas Shrugged, but it has reminded me how much credit is due Capitalism for directing the Napoleonic drive in each of us towards enterprises which create wealth, rather than war or politics, which loot and plunder the wealth of others. I prefer the historical narrative that credits this single innovation with unleashing more human potential than any other, and explains the dramatic, inexorable rise of civilization since the first Industrial Revolution began in England in the 18th century.
That Revolution put into motion a cultural sea-change from a world in which hard work was looked down upon by the upper class as the shame of the lower class into one in which industriousness was a virtue of the rising middle class, and one rewarded by the market. So people began to work as long and hard as they could to accumulate capital and build their little business empires. (I resist the temptation to pursue this tangent further. It will have to wait for another post…)
Today, the conventional wisdom is drifting away from that. There's a commonly held belief that there are diminishing returns to working long hours and that the most sensible thing to do is to lead a balanced life. You have this move in developed countries to set absolute limits on the work-week. In France, I think, it is capped at thirty-five hours.
What if the opposite is true? What if the longer, the harder, you work, you can experience not decreasing, but increasing returns?
When I find myself working on a large project or a hard problem, I've come to realize that the way to really make headway is by blocking off extended periods of uninterrupted time, and that the longer the period, the more productive that session is. It takes a long time for my brain to gain full momentum, for me to fully wrap myself around a problem, to achieve peak efficiency, to arrive at that sudden realization, or apply that final polish.
I've noticed that our engineers feel the same way. I've shared this observation with other entrepreneurs who say they experience the same dynamic.
At Everest, we have very lax policies about sick times, vacations, and hours. Nobody clocks in. Some people come in late. Some people leave early. If you're sick, you don't have to come in. If you need to take a vacation, you can.
We get away with this because we have a ownership culture. This creation is ours. We take pride in our craft. When you're working on something you're deeply passionate about, which you believe will be hugely valuable to others, and which is yours, there's nothing you'll want more than to work. When I work hard, I feel like I am fulfilling my highest calling as a human being. It is a tremendous privilege and an utter pleasure.
I went home for Labor Day to spend time with my family. One of my uncles compared building his business to building a cathedral. When he wants inspiration, he thinks of the great builders of cathedrals as they etched each detail in painstaking precision over the course of a century…
What's the explanation? Why do we have this Napoleonic personality disorder? Why do we exhibit such unhealthy, unbalanced, maniacal, obsessive, impatient, dominating, relentless, eccentric, ambitious, DRIVE? And why is it so hard to satisfy or appease? How come no amount of effort seems enough?
When I look within myself to answer that question, what I find is my creative spirit. There is potential and talent within me and it festers, like salt in the wound, like poison oak under the skin. It seeks expression. It wants to manifest itself. It knows what it is capable of. What actions. What words. What art. What results. It hungers for it, not for recognition, but to satisfy its chief end. I use that term as Aristotle would have used it. Talent exists to be used like a rabbit exists to bounce around.
Maybe it's my muse. That thing Elisabeth Gilbert was talking about in her famous TED talk:
Do you feel this way? Or is it just me?
Here's to the crazy ones who work obsessively hard. Let them never feel self-pity or wonder if there's something wrong with them. Let them indulge their passion and express their creativity fully. Let them work hard. Let them work long. Let them pursue the impossible. Let them celebrate it when they reach it. Celebrate it with them. Celebrate them. Join them!
The “Napoleonic personality” inspired by a recent conversation with my friend Kanyi Maqubela - follow him @KM on Twitter. As an investor, this is the sole trait he looks for in founders of startups as a reliable indicator for predicting the success or failure of their ventures.
ACT 1 - THE DIABOLICAL VILLAIN If, in the story of your life, you, and the things you create (such as your startup and its product), are the hero, then choose your villain wisely. What are you taking a stand against?
In literature, the crafting of the villain is the secret to a compelling plot.
Boring villains have straightforward motives. They are bad and they know it. Consumed by one of the seven deadly vices - lust, greed, pride, wrath, sloth, gluttony, envy - they behave just as you'd expect them to.
But the great villains, the truly diabolical ones - that animate the stories that keep you at the edge of your seat, hanging on every word - they aren't like that at all. They see themselves as the hero. They strive for an end so valiant, in their eyes, that to achieve it, by any means, is worth any price, worth any suffering, they or their victims are made to endure.
Misunderstood creatures. When they perpetrate a horrific act of violence, the backup explanation, offered on cue, after the supporting characters (and the audience) recover from the slap of shock, after the go-to vices fail as plausible motives, is that the perpetrator must be insane. How could such senseless madness come from any mind governed by reason?
Insanity: our last retreat. An explanation to stave off other possibilites, darker ones, so beyond the realm of what we care to acknowledge, that we refuse to consider them. Easier to deal with insanity. But maybe… Maybe this time… It might be… It cannot be…
Then, the mastermind strikes again. The showdown, the confrontation. The moment when the hero has to stare it in the eyes. There. It is. Unthinkable. Pure. Evil.
But. Is evil ever pure? What is diabolical about a devil if not his truth, his light? Without these softer footsteps, these silent daggers in the night - the masquerade, the deception, the seduction, the trap… one, all, lies wrapped in truth, swallowed whole - all that is left is brute force. And that is not the forté of the diabolical villain. Strength, yes, but cunning, first.
How evil thinks, how evil works, is not the domain of the innocent, of the bystander. That is the task of the playwright - surfacing motives, making them understood. And what a task: to make the darkest thoughts and their deepest origins known and accessible, then further, to move us, the audience, like an inexperienced jury, to feel true empathy for the accused.
Have you ever wondered why, when reading a book, or watching a movie, when the hero triumphs, you feel it? When he kisses the beautiful girl, you almost taste her lips, and your spirit soars with his? Or when he takes a blow, you cringe? One of our unique traits as a species is that we are storytellers. We have this urge to create and consume stories. We crave them like food and water. And we're such naturals at ego-projection, at assuming the identity of the protagonist: seeing the world from his perspective, feeling what he feels. But we're terrible at identifying with the villains.
Partly because we don't want to. To do so would almost recognize the capacity within each of us to become like them. We want to think that the story is about us, and that in it, we are the heroes, not the villains! But obviously, that's absurd. Because no audience is pure and good. If every person who read a book or watched a movie was as much like the heroes as he or she wanted to believe, we would live in a perfect world. Perhaps, by estranging ourselves from the villains, we may protect ourselves too much. Our psychology wants to protect itself from threats. Seeking to understand the villain might result in discovering too much in common with ourselves, with our own minds. And that is another truth too scary for us to confront.
If you can't understand the genesis and nature of evil, you can't guard against it. Maybe that's part of the role, beyond pure entertainment, that the best stories play in human society. They become anti-bodies spread quickly by the cultural meme that is born of any popular story, passing from one retelling, reader, or showing to the next. Instead of just posting warning signs at the entrance, they take us down the dark paths to show us what terrors lie ahead for travelers, giving us the best warning of all. The best stories allow authors to make a statement. To express their perspective. To frame what they value as good and heroic, by first showing us the full horror of the opposite, and hinging the tensions in the plot against that.
All that is to say, that whereas creating empathy for the villain is hard, for the hero, it is easy.
By far the most important thing to know about the diabolical villain is that he is an ethical being with a complex moral system. Granted, one we would consider twisted and perverse, but nonetheless, it exists, and provides helpful clues to explain behavior. That runs counter to our default assumption: that he has no principles and doesn't believe in anything or anyone. The case is, instead, quite the opposite. He usually operates from a very well-defined set of principles and beliefs about the world and about people - what you might call his 'worldview'. Every action is deliberate and aligned to some greater purpose. He has his reasons, and the more compelling the plot, the more diabolical the villain, the deeper those reasons go.
Not unlike art itself, in that respect. Art demands motive. Perhaps that's the one rule that has yet to be broken. Can an artist attempt a piece without purpose? To do so is a purpose of its own. Another way of saying the same thing, is to say: art makes a statement. In addition to that, I would argue that the greater the artist, the greater the motive, the greater the statement.
ACT 2 - THE LEAGUE OF SHADOWS The League of Shadows believed that people are corrupt, that society's doom is inevitable, and that therefore the only way to resume historical progress is to speed up the process of creative destruction. Bruce Wayne believed that people are both worth saving and capable of rising up against corruption, all they need is a symbol of inspiration - an example of resistance - to rally behind, and that therefore the right thing to do, and the only way to save Gotham, is to provide that symbol through becoming Batman.
For those who practice the art of story, nothing can set up a profound statement better than a profound villain. In the recent trilogy of Batman films, Christopher Nolan accomplished precisely that. (I'll start with this story, as it's the one that gave me the whole idea for this literary theory, but in the future, I'd also like to apply it to Atlas Shrugged, Paradise Lost, and other great stories…)
Each film has the same basic plot structure.
The villain is not one man, but an organization known as the League of Shadows. The League is not motivated by any of the seven deadly vices. For them, money, for example, is just a tool, like ammunition for war. The League sees itself as the hero.
In the first film, it is described by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson's character), who is later revealed as Ra's al Ghul (its leader) himself, in the following words:
“The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome. Loaded trade ships with plague rats. Burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.”
And later on, in the final confrontation at the end of that film:
“No one can save Gotham. When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural. Tomorrow the world will watch in horror as its greatest city destroys itself. The movement back to harmony will be unstoppable this time.”
As you can see, these are no the words of a criminal, or a man who has lost his mind to insanity, but the words of a philosopher, honest enough with himself about his ideas to act on their fullest implications. In these statements, he drops several clues to pick up on.
First, that the League of Shadows has a set of beliefs about the way the world works, that stem from what is best described as a cyclical view of history, in which a civilization will rise and then fall, only to make way for a new one. When they rise, it is in a moment of moral greatness and strength, when good men and their good sense prevail. This leads to success, then later, to decadence, corruption and decline. A single cycle can span one generation or many. In that narrative, once the rot has taken hold, corruption has set in, and the process of decline has begun, the only way for progress to resume is to accelerate the decline. That's when the League of Shadows steps in - to speed up the inevitable ruin of a great society. Then a transition can occur, and progress can resume, as a new society rises to take its place. They are, if you will, the restart button of civilization. And they see their role as sacred and noble.
Given that, one way to think about the League of Shadows is as a hacker. Hackers often see themselves as serving a salutary role in the security ecosystem. If they can hack in, they should, if only to expose the loopholes. If they can't, if a strong defense thwarts even their best efforts, then the system wasn't ready to fall, and deserves to live another day. Either way, the ecosystem benefits because more secure systems are built with better code. Except instead of hacking into security systems, the League is hacking into the infrastructure of civilization itself. As Ra's al Ghul tells Batman at the climax of the first film, “you are defending a city so corrupt we have infiltrated every level of its infrastructure.”
Why is this an attractive lie? Because it is wrapped in truth. Because there are many cyclical resonances in history, but not inevitable cycles. Because success can lead to decadence, but it doesn't have to. Because decline can be hard to reverse, but not impossible. Because uninvited hacking can make a system or a society stronger, but it doesn't make it right. Because you have corrupted some people does not mean you have corrupted everyone.
Second, that the League of Shadows has a belief about the way people are. Ra's al Ghul stresses, again and again, that Gotham is corrupt. Corruption is the security loophole that these hackers exploit. In their moral universe, corruption is clearly the worst, the unpardonable, evil. Their belief is that people are corrupt. That this is deep in our nature. That a decadent society brings together exactly the right ingredients to trigger it in us, to let it proliferate unchecked, like a cancer in late-stages.
This begs the question, of course: what does 'corruption' actually mean in their eyes? It's not clear. They seem to talk a lot about “the rich and the powerful”. So maybe they have a strong political philosophy, and what we're seeing in that last film, the social leveling reminiscent of the French revolution, is really some utopia they're trying to bring about. But I doubt that. It seems like just a front. Otherwise, they wouldn't just nuke the place. Corruption, I think, in this context, is not defined by the presence of power or money, based on some socialist or communist ideal, but the willingness to trade anything for power or money. To sell out. That's what the League preys upon.
Third, notice how the League wants Gotham to be destroyed. It does not want to destroy Gotham, but merely to allow it to destroy itself. So in the first movie, he works with a criminal named Crane to weaponize a hallucinogenic gas then distribute it through the city's water system in order to initiate the sort of mass-hysteria whereby it will “tear itself apart through fear”.
In the second movie, The Dark Knight, the Joker pulls off something very similar. Remember the two ships? He placed detonators in the hands of both crews. One was full of criminals; the other, of citizens. Relying on classic game-theory, he assumed that they would destroy each other before time ran out and they called his bluff about them both blowing up. Miraculously, the citizens of Gotham didn't play into his hand and thankfully, Batman didn't let him blow them up anyway.
In the last movie of the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, which just came out this summer, Ra's al Ghul's daughter, Miranda, inherits control of the League. She and her lover, Bane, return to Gotham to finish what her father started. How do they do it? She infiltrates the upper echelons of Wayne Enterprises while Bane abducts the only scientist capable of destabilizing the nuclear-powered clean-energy device that Wayne has financed and built in secret. Then, Bane plays on the greed of one of the company's board members to pull of a heist at the stock exchange that personally bankrupts Bruce Wayne, making him lose control of the board, which is then given to Miranda, while gaining access to the resources of this corrupt board member's construction company. Bane uses those resources to orchestrate simultaneous detonations through the city, while luring the entire police force into a hunt for his subterranean army of thugs operating out of the sewers, which he then traps underground. This horrific but flawlessly executed plot climaxes with Bane taking the entire city hostage, preventing the federal government from intervening through the threat of detonating a nuclear device.
While Batman does his best to thwart these efforts, he is prevented by the jealous and incompetent police captain and other city officials, who hunt him down, instead of the real villains. Lastly, he is delivered into the hands of his enemy by the betrayal of someone, Catwoman, whom he had trusted. She partly does this for self-interest – she made a deal with the devil in order to escape – but partly because she's willing to acquiesce to the devil's plans. Several times she repeats this refrain that “the storm is coming” in which the rich, the powerful, and the corrupt will get what they deserve. All of this seems to validate the League of Shadows in their belief that Gotham is corrupt and that they are just helping it destroy itself.
There's this sense in which Bane is leading a people's revolution. He addresses the “Citizens of Gotham” as a liberator. He encourages them to take what they want - to loot and to pillage the property of those who have. He lets them set up mock trials in which people are put to death. The scenes are very reminiscent of what we read about from The Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. There's this gross sense of righteous vindication, of 'at last' the 'guilty' (the rich/powerful/corrupt) are finally getting 'what they deserve'. As Bane puts it, “I am Gotham's reckoning”.
So again, the theme of the League of Shadows carries into the third movie, as you watch the internecine warfare, the civil-war - a city destroying itself, tearing itself apart. And it is as if the League has proved its point, as if Ra's al Ghul stood gloating, 'You see? We were right. Gotham was over-ripe with corruption. Like a rotten apple, not yet fallen from the tree. She was ready to fall. We barely helped. Now a new fruit can grow. Harmony and balance are restored. Those who replace them, who rebuild this place, will work hard, have character, and be a people of moral greatness and strength. Ultimately their success and the success of their children and grandchildren will once again lead to decadence and corruption, and we will once again, have to step in, and pluck again from this tree. This is the great calling of the League of Shadows.'
The turning point in this film, and in the others, is not when Batman arrives on the scene, but when some of the people of Gotham decide, on their own accord, to rise up against the villain. In the first film, it was Rachel Dawes and police commissioner Gordon. In the second, it was Harvey Dent the citizens on the ships. In the third, it Officer Blake (who later becomes Robin) and Catwoman, as well as the entire police force. The idea being that there are still a few good people left willing to make a stand.
If you were to capture the essence of this plot in a painting, you would paint Batman and his friends and the League and their cronies on either side, with the people, the citizens of Gotham, hanging in the balance, but ultimately, put in a place, if not to defend themselves, to decide.
(As I'm writing this, I suddenly see a strong connection between the Biblical story of Abraham pleading with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if he can find just ten good people in the city. Interesting. To be explored offline…
It also reminds me of this Edmund Burke quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”)
Part of the poetry of Nolan's Batman trilogy is how the identities of the hero and the villain are intertwined. In the second film, Joker brings this theme out explicitly when he says to Batman, somewhat comically, “you complete me!” And at the outset of the first film, Henri Ducard plucks Bruce Wayne out of a remote prison in Asia to train in the ways of the League of Shadows. To convince him, they have the following exchange, again, reinforcing the fact that the most diabolical villains see themselves as heroes:
[Henri] Someone like you is only here by choice. You have been exploring the criminal fraternity, but whatever your original intentions, you have become truly lost.
[Bruce] And what path can Ra's al Ghul offer?
[Henri] The path of a man who shares his hatred of evil and wishes to serve true justice. The path of the League of Shadows.
[Bruce] You're vigilantes.
[Henri] No, no, no. A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you, then you become something else entirely.
[Bruce] Which is?
[Henri] A legend, Mr. Wayne.
As Henri speaks, the viewer gets the sense that he means what he says. It turns out that Ra's al Ghul really did 'hate evil', but just had a terrifyingly misguided sense of 'true justice'. When Bruce learns their intentions, he escapes with his life, and in the process, destroys their headquarters and almost the League itself.
Filled with newfound direction, Bruce returns to Gotham. There, at Wayne manor, he asks his loyal servant Alfred about his parents, hoping to reconnect with his past, looking for something there to help him solve the riddle of his own calling and purpose. They have this conversation:
[Alfred] In the depression, your father nearly bankrupted Wayne Enterprises combating poverty. He believed that his example could inspire the wealthy of Gotham to save their city.
[Bruce] Did it?
[Alfred] In a way. Their murder shocked the wealthy and the powerful into action.
[Bruce] People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I'm flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol, I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.
Unlike other superheroes, Bruce does not wear a mask just to protect those he loves. Batman provides Gotham with a symbol that somebody believes that the city is still worth fighting for, that one of them is standing up against the forces of darkness, that the criminals and the villains are not invulnerable, and that they can be beaten. The mere existence of this figure provides a rallying call and a beacon around which people can rally. There's sides now, there's a real force for good, there's hope. What's so poetic about this is that in so doing, he is at once both borrowing from the League of Shadows (“A legend, Mr. Wayne…”) and taking on the role that his parents played in Gotham before they died.
If the League of Shadows stands for a cyclical narrative of inevitable decline, Batman stands for breaking the cycle and putting it in reverse, for the belief that a once-great society can rise again, if enough people within it still have the will to do so. The deeper you look into the mythology of this hero, the more you see the same theme. Bruce's father saw Gotham in decline, but instead of letting it collapse, his company began a renaissance through investments in infrastructure and technology, which allowed him to become an extraordinarily generous philanthropist capable of taking on deeper social problems. Batman stands for the belief that society is worth saving and that it can be saved.
If the League of Shadows stands for the belief that corruption is inevitable, Batman stands for the belief that people are capable of trust and of selflessness and of doing the right thing. That human nature is not intrinsically corrupt and doomed. But that each of us are capable of both good and evil. And that the role of the hero, of the symbol, of the legend, is to inspire you to the light.
ACT 3 - THE PRODUCT AS HERO OR VILLAIN What does any of this have to do with Silicon Valley? Your beliefs about the world and about people shape the sort of product you will build. In turn, your product will shape the sort of people we become. Are you satisfying people's desire to be lazy or creative? Is your product the villain or the hero?
One of my favorite entrepreneurs is also a friend of mine. His name is Zach Verdin and he's the founder of a great company called The New Hive. Their product gives users a blank canvas that they can use to express themselves however they want and share it with a community that embraces creative expression. He built this platform because he believes that people are creative - that this is a deep, innate, universal human desire - so that if you give them the tools, the space, and a little encouragement, they will surprise even themselves.
Zach works hard. He has poured himself - mind, body, and soul - into making his business succeed. He convinced others to team up with him, and they turned The New Hive from just an idea into something real that people love to use. It wasn't easy. They have been at this for a long time - he's been thinking about it for over eight years and his team has been working on it together for three and a half years - and all that time he has shouldered the vision, responsibility, risk, and stress. He has endured hardship and sacrifice. He has given it his utmost effort. It has consumed him. And every step along the way, investors spurned him. Even when they began to succeed, they were blind to it. Despite his incredible salesmanship, they could not bring themselves to believe that anyone other than an artist would find value in a blank canvas. People aren't that creative! they thought, people are lazy! They aren't going to spend time working on, of all things, expressing themselves! Zach proved them wrong. He stood his ground, found ways to survive without their money, to hold out long enough for the results to force their hands. Now he's raised a significant amount of seed capital and The New Hive is spreading its movement quickly.
In this story, who was Batman and who were the League of Shadows? Who believed in the good in people and who bet against it?
In the process of fundraising, I've heard a lot of investors say, in the manner of an undeniable assertion, that 'people are lazy'. It's usually part of the sentence that begins with 'But…' that begins right after I tell them that our product is going to help people achieve personal goals. It's as if they've given up on the idea that technology can actually help people do hard things, that users will actually engage with a product if it helps them do the things they want to do better.
In mobile, the design paradigm du jour is simplicity. Create really simple apps. One button. A discrete function. Not a platform. Not lots of features. Reduce, reduce, reduce. What's the reason for this? If you ask them, they will tell you that 'people are lazy', that attention spans are going down, that the amount of time people are willing to invest to learn how anything works is plummeting, and that mobile rewards experiences that are 'tap, tap, AWESOME!' Deliver your dopamine hit with as little friction as possible. That's the idea.
That's a bad idea. What if simplicity lies on the other side of complexity? What if the reductionists are wrong: what if simple doesn't mean reducing your UI to just one button? What if simple means finding the solution to a complex problem that in retrospect, appears inevitable? What if that's what people want?
You see this kind of thinking everywhere you look. How much money has gone into social gaming? Look at Zynga. Most of their revenue comes from a small minority of users who spend serious dough on their in-app purchases. They call them “whales”. Who are they? A bunch of stressed out moms in suburbia, looking for an escape, wasting money and time they can't afford to get another dopamine hit.
Zynga doesn't just follow all the best practices, they created many of them. They got to where they are by turning engagement into a science. By employing the world's best growth hackers and product optimizers. By tweaking and iterating to no end. By creating disciplined processes and efficient systems to churn out the next blockbuster game.
Why? To make money, of course, and there's nothing wrong with that. But there's a lot of ways to make money. Why did some of the world's best talent and best capital concentrate in this way, to build this company? Because somebody convinced everyone that “people are lazy” and that if you're looking for business opportunities, you should trade in that, that it would be a safe bet.
The problem with the belief that people are lazy is that it's not true. Some people are lazy, sometimes. But the rest of the time, they are other things. There's an easy counter-argument: if everyone was lazy, would we even have a word for lazy? Somebody, somewhere, had to have made us conscious of it, made us aware, as it were, of our nakedness. It is such an absurd, simplistic, and un-useful assertion, that I don't understand why any half-intelligent person still holds it. The reality is that people are complex, and can't be reduced down to one quality. Sometimes they are lazy. Other times they are diligent and hard working. Some people are inspired and motivated. Others are cynical. There are moments of courage and others of fear.
If you are a product person and you say “people are lazy”, what you are really saying is 'I know there is a market of people who want to cater to their lazy tendencies, and as a person who develops products, I chose to build for that, to fill that need, to scratch that itch.' Ultimately, it's a choice. One could just as easily say “people are adventurous” and then build The North Face.
Given that, the question is, what qualities do you chose to feed? I think it is important to recognize the truth in Marshall McLuhan's words, that “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” When you build the next Farmville, then you and many others will spend hours playing that game. The more craft you put into your creation, the more people will play and the longer they will play for. When you design a product for lazy people, when they play, you are feeding their laziness. Every session just increases their long-term appetite and serves to make them even more lazy than when they began. Whereas, when you build a product for adventurous people and they use it, the more they use it, the more their long-term appetite increases, and the more adventurous they become.
What does this remind you of?
It reminds me of the League of Shadows, accelerating the cycle of decline. The truth here is that within us, there is a desire called laziness. The lie is that it is us and that it determines all our behavior. We are not doomed to be lazy or to create products for lazy people. But if we fall into that trap, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The good news is that instead, we can create products for the sort of people that we want to become, and that by feeding those desires, they will only strengthen.
I find it sad that those who invest in and create products for lazy people actually believe that they are creating value – that they are the heroes of the story, not the villains.
Thankfully, there are those who believe that people are worth saving, and that our nobler qualities are worth building products for. Those people, those investors, those entrepreneurs, those companies – they are the only Batman that Silicon Valley has.
And as Silicon Valley goes, so goes the world. This is where products are shaped. And once they are shaped, thereafter they shape us.
While the heroes and the villains clash, the outcome will ultimately be decided by people. People will decide what products to use, what products to buy, why, how, how many, and how much. Maybe they are corrupt. Maybe they are lazy. Or maybe they will, in the end, rally behind the hero in the final battle. There's only one way to find out.
All that we have to do is to take a stand for what we believe in and hope for.
Build those kinds of products.
You can break a vicious cycle and replace it with a virtuous one.
What do you believe?
DECIDE THE FATE OF GOTHAM
CREDITSIf this is any good, credit goes to these amazing friends. My conversations with them helped form my thoughts!
What if there was a subscription sports membership business, providing all-you-can eat access to gear, gyms, and related experiences?
Here's the problem it solves, as experienced by us:
We love being active. There's so much to do, particularly in the Bay Area. There's tennis and golf, surfing and kiting, fencing, sailing, climbing, skating, kayaking, biking and more! But how much gear would you need to buy in order to keep up with the Joneses and do all these wonderful activities on a regular basis? A LOT! An impractical amount - both in terms of dollars spent and storage space required.
Even if you had plenty of both to spare, it still might not be advisable to go out to buy it all, because all your shiny new equipment will be outdated in just a few years and meanwhile, maintenance is a drag. If it is still usable when you replace it with newer gear, then you also need to think about where to give it away. Also, it's pretty wasteful to have all this stuff sitting in your garage unused most of the time. That's not a pleasant feeling for any owner.
So what do people like us do?
- Either we stick with one or two high-frequency activities
- Or, we rent when necessary.
For example, since March, I've taken up rock climbing. I pay a monthly membership at a local climbing gym and I bought a bunch of gear. That's my highest frequency activity.
But when my friends go kite surfing, I'd also like to join them too. When they go biking, I want in also. Every time I have to rent or borrow gear. Aside from the expense, which can be prohibitive if you're doing this a lot and you have a budget, there's also the hassle of walking over to Sports Basement (2.5 miles away).
This pushes lots of people into more rigid patterns of behavior than they'd otherwise pursue. We'd like to engage in a variety of sporting activities, but because of the economics, we have to chose one or two.
The reason for this problem is that the structure of the sporting industry has misaligned incentives with consumers. Gyms want you locked in. They don't want you to be liquid: free to come one month and not show up the next. Gear companies usually supply just one category of sport and they also want you locked-in. They don't benefit from you spreading your limited sporting budget across gear for lots of different kinds of sport.
You could buy just one subscription membership for all your sports needs?
Gear: like Netflix, only better. You can have as many items out as you want, you just pay for what you use. We can either send it to your door, or you can go to one of our pick-up and drop-off sites scattered throughout your city in conveniently nearby locations. Tell us your size and your preferences, even if they're specialized, and we'll make sure you get what you need.
Gyms: we've struck deals with every gym in the city. You can go anywhere from Planet Granite to Equinox: high-brow, low-brow, weights or climbing, don't worry about it - you're covered. At the end of the month we'll charge you an average based on what you consumed, and you'll be getting membership pricing, not a pay-as-you-go rip-off. If you don't go to gyms, we won't charge you.
Experiences: for sporting experiences, from paragliding to paddle-boarding to wave-running to shooting, we've also got you covered. We've got a large network of suppliers. Our deal with them is simple: send us the bill. We get group pricing and pass it on to you. And the more often you go, the cheaper it gets. Sound like magic? We're doing all the heavy-lifting behind the curtain. Partly it's just a numbers game. But we also own some of the gear they keep in house. We let them use it for free when our members aren't, but then, in exchange, we pass on to you the same gear savings that you're used to from us.
How convenient and freeing would that be? Can you imagine being able to do anything you want, anytime you want?
Just go to our website or mobile app to get started!
Thoughts on executing on this business…
Start with gear. Don't add gyms or experiences until you figure out the economics of gear - that's your core business. Once it's up and running, there should be enough demand for that one service to sustain further growth. As it is, the economics are complex, and they will get more complex as you build out the platform.
Get the pricing right. Will you price dynamically based on several factors? Or will you offer various packages? Dynamic pricing is probably the way to go.
Get the distribution right. How can you get enough subscribers to know you exist and to sign up? Figure out the cost for acquiring a subscriber.
Get the logistics right. Are you going to build your own delivery system? Or, are you going to build on something pre-existing, like the new Postmates network, by trying to partner with them to get access to their API? How many design concepts can we come up with for the pick-up and drop-off points? Can we partner with anyone to lower the cost? How expensive is it?
The economics of this business are complex, and figuring it out is going to be the hardest part. The good news is that once it is churning, you should be in a really strong position to scale while also expand the platform's offerings.
Here's what excites me about the prospects of this business, that, to me, makes it the rare kind of idea that's actually worth pursuing…
In the hands of a competent but uninspired founder, I could see this being a lot like Laundry Locker: a quiet and very profitable business that hums along.
In the hands of a highly capable and visionary leadership team, there's so much room for the sort of flawless, inspired execution that really shines, and that you can build a great consumer brand on top of.
If you approach it like that and you think big, this is an opportunity to disrupt the entire sports industry, which hasn't changed much in my lifetime. In suburbia you have sports superstores. Their gear ends up collecting dust and clogging up every garage in a sea of track homes. For urban-dwellers, who pay a hefty premium for space, it just isn't economical to have much stuff. The less stuff, the better. But they would jump at the chance to fill their free time with athletics and adventure, if they weren't locked into one or two routines through their gear and gyms. There's enough of them with disposable income and the appetite to build a massive base of subscribers. This could grow into an international enterprise with billions of dollars in revenue.
Gear collecting dust and clogging up a suburban garage. There's never enough, you don't have space, it gets old, and it sits around like junk not being used.
Not only is the disruptive potential massive, but the energy that would be unleashed in society would be so positive. It make people's lives way better. Think about the sort of value that is being created by this service. It provides convenience and freedom. It turns athletics and adventure into a buffet, and people ALWAYS consume more in a buffet. More consumption in this market is a very good thing for society, and the company should promote a cultural movement in this direction. But it is also a good thing for the entire industry. Even though it will compete directly with certain established players and tamper with lots of old business models, it will ultimately result in growing the pie for the whole industry.
Lastly, once the business is established, the platform can grow in so many directions that there will always be new horizons to explore. That's the mark of a truly great business. Even with all its other merits, without this quality, it would eventually bore me. But I can get excited about this. It started out as an idea for a gear business, but I can already see how it can expand into gyms and experiences. Beyond that, I can see a Mint.com-style dashboards showing users all their usage patterns and suggestions for new activities. I can see this company building a thriving online and offline community around its services, connecting people to do activities, etc. All of this is potentially both highly valuable to users and to the company and to its ecosystem of providers.
I'll be watching this space closely. If someone decides to take this idea and run with it, or is interested in funding it, please get in touch. I'm obviously busy with Everest, but am happy to help.
I have an uncle whom I look up to very much. Started with nothing. Saw opportunity everywhere. Years in the making, he has built a successful business, by sweat, sheer force of will, and strength of character. Through him, many others make their living. In the cast of characters in my life, he is the iconic self-made man. When he speaks, I listen.
This Saturday morning I got a message from him, suggesting that I watch this TED Talk. He didn't explain why, but promised I'd find it interesting and relevant to my career. Here it is. The speaker is Kirby Ferguson and the title of his talk is Embracing the remix.
When smart people fool other smart people by saying stupid things in a smart way, like this, it scares me. Because stupid so easily becomes dangerous. Ferguson is smart. My uncle is smart. But this talk says a very stupid thing. And it says it in a smart way. In my opinion, the sort of thinking it encourages is dangerous. So it scares me. It scares me very much.
Ironically, the thinking in the talk is not new, but a remix of things like-minded people are saying these days. People like President Obama, who in a recent speech, said the following:
“If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own… If you've got a business, you didn't build that on your own…”
That's also how Ferguson thinks. You invented the iPhone? You didn't build that. Society did. Hundreds of years of history did. You remixed everything. Abandon your silly notions of property. You don't own that. It belongs to us, to society.
That Henry Ford quote is Ferguson's silver bullet.
“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work … progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable.” — Henry Ford
At least Steve Jobs and his hero, Bob Dylan - the other examples used in Ferguson's talk - took credit for their originality, their artistry, and their hard work.
But Ford digs his own grave. If I could interview him from beyond that grave, I'd ask him if he'd lost his mind when he'd said that, or just had it in for the rest of us. It tees up the Fergusons of the world so perfectly, 'Ah yes, Mr. Ford, so good to see that we're in agreement. You said it yourself, you invented nothing new. It was history, it was society, it was luck. So many factors aligned to make it inevitable. So you don't really deserve all that immense wealth. That property? It isn't yours after all. Society lays claim to it.'
This disenfranchises creators and their work.
What's at stake here is a simple question: does what you do matter?
Somebody ought to stand up against Ferguson's idea that everything is a remix (and that therefore there is little to no real basis for claims to originality or ownership). As I said earlier, ironically, it is not a new idea. It is a remix of Hegel, the 18th century german philosopher.
Like Ferguson, Hegel also felt that individuals don't really matter that much. From his perspective, all the heroes and villains of history - Caesar, Napoleon, Charlemagne - served as little more than figureheads, the inevitable expression of the tectonic forces of their time. Social structures, cultural movements, technological and ideological trajectories - these things matter. And much like Ferguson, the best way to understand a world like this is through the lens of the remix: Hegel believed that history was an endless progression of thesis, counter-thesis, and synthesis.
That is a smart lie - very stupid, and very dangerous.
I, for one, believe in the old-fashioned concept of individual agency in history. Life is literature. There are heroes. There are villains. We are characters in the story. We are Tolkien's hobbits. The world may be a big place, with lots of forces beyond our control, but “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” What you do matters.
If progress, especially something as radical as Ford's invention of the automobile, is inevitable, then what you do does not matter. Take a vacation. Somebody else will figure it out. No big deal.
But that's just not true.
Not in music. Just because you have influences does not mean that your work is not your own or unique. Maybe Bob Dylan had a few influences in his early career. But can Ferguson really argue that most of his work was just a modification or transformation of borrowed influence? That's simply not true. Not just taken as a whole, but even song by song, his body of work is mostly original and unique. If he had not written and performed those songs, no other musician would have arisen to take his place. Nobody was, or is, or will be Bob Dylan. That said, his work certainly has and will continue to inspire new artists. But they will be unique as well. Their work is their own. His work is his own. Let us not discredit greatness.
Not in science. What the mind of Einstein accomplished was the sort of rare feat that only one mind in a generation, or in a century, is capable of. Einstein took science a huge leap forward - he was original, not a remix. So was Newton, who began to unravel the mysteries of gravity and motion. Somewhat like Ford, Newton didn't take all the credit: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. At first glance, that would seem to support Ferguson's point of view. But it doesn't. He saw further. He stood on the shoulders of giants. What he saw, they didn't see. They deserve credit for their accomplishments, but not for his.
Even syntactically the argument leads to a contradiction. There are original recordings and then there are remixes - the two are different and you can't have one without the other. So by definition, everything is not a remix. If Ford, of all people, “invented nothing new” then nobody invented anything, which is absurd. In the same way, if everything is a remix, then the word 'remix' means nothing. If you're remixing remixes of remixes, it is turtles all the way down.
The most dangerous lies are hidden behind the most profound truths.
The profound truth here is that no individual's accomplishments exist in a vacuum. There is so much context. It needs to be considered and acknowledged. But the dangerous lie is that the individual has no agency and deserves neither credit nor reward. Or, that the individual enjoys wealth and distinction at the pleasure of society, so thus they may be seized.
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes the sort of society that embraces this thinking. People see themselves as victims, they become jealous and entitled, and like zombies, prey on the few left who produce and create anything of importance. 'They didn't invent anything new! Everything was just a remix. Blah blah blah…' Like an endangered species, they are driven to extinction, even though the entire economy depends on them. It is madness, but the looters don't see it.
Rand took thinking like Ferguson's head on and she was very intellectually honest. She believed that selfishness was moral. Until writing this post, I never really understood what she meant by that. Now I do. She meant that as individuals, we all must take full accountability for our actions and their consequences. If you decide that what you want, what you truly want, is to work at a non-profit, giving all your time and energy towards villages in Africa, then you have received your reward in full. That's what you decided would make you happy, so you did it, and in so doing, were acting selfishly. You were free to make that decision. If an individual from one of those villages goes on to enjoy tremendous success, you can feel a sense of pride and fulfillment and take some credit, but you can't lay claim to own part of what they might create or produce. Unless, of course, you entered into a legal contract with this individual the specific terms of which were violated.
Framing it that way allows for refreshing clarity. When you act selfishly, you're always fairly compensated, because the market determines your value. Whenever anyone says that somebody doesn't deserve their profits, point to the market in which those profits were fairly won. Customers were willing to pay this person for the value they received. It was a free transaction. Therefore they were fairly compensated.
But what about the poor person doing international aid and development work for a non-profit in Africa, getting paid far less? Isn't the work that they are doing just as, if not more, valuable?
Perhaps it is. But they are compensated differently. Just as some companies can afford to offer lower salaries because so many qualified people are willing to work there for less (because the company is so cool, or whatever…), non-profits can afford to offer lower salaries because the people they attract are not primarily motivated by cash, because they get compensated in other ways (by receiving profuse gratitude after building a well for a village, for example). If you think of society as its own market with its own forms of compensation, it helps balance things out. You may not get paid much in the Army, but if you're into that kind of thing, you can get medals and wear uniforms and shoot things and work in a special environment with special people. There's a limited market for opportunities like that.
Nobody is entitled to anyone else's property. If you feel like you create more value than you are compensated for, don't complain, convince the market - find a willing buyer at your price, find someone who will give you what you want. Be selfish.
Much selflessness is misguided. Just this evening, while writing this very post, a dear and wise friend of mine, Kevin Adler, wrote a post abandoning the ideal of the Renaissance man. Instead of striving for a better self, he said he would strive for a better community.
My co-founder, Victor, took issue with it. He wrote:
“There is no separation between creating a better self and a better world. Change yourself and you will change those around you. What good is focusing on improving the community if you as an individual are not reaching for a higher-level of potential? This makes you lower-leverage and as a result has a lower impact on the community. On the other hand, there is no purpose in making oneself better if one (and one's work) remains sheltered from others. Now the question is, how often does a person focused on reaching her potential truly remain secluded from society? It's a rare thing and a person striving to be her best self will inevitably influence others around her to do the same.”
As soon as we accept less than greatness from ourselves, how can we focus on awakening greatness in others? Elevate the individual and community will follow. Elevate community above the individual and you'll get mediocrity.
Notice that Ferguson has a chip on his shoulder about patent law?
Would you be surprised if I said that Ferguson's motivations for his talk were probably quite noble? I think they are. He seems to want to reduce creative friction. I'm afraid that his strategy for doing so - eroding ownership - hurts more than it helps. It hurts culturally. It hurts economically. It hurts legally.
The legal industry is making a fortune off of smart-phone patent infringement lawsuits that Apple, Google, Samsung, and others are fighting with their huge war-chests.
What Ferguson seems to want is to repeal (or neuter) patents. If, as his argument goes, to innovate, you must copy, and to copy, you must infringe patents, then patents are bad, because they prevent innovation.
Forget about that nonsense about progress being inevitable. The only thing that is inevitable is that without a strong sense of ownership, very few individuals will bother with progress.
Ferguson doesn't believe in intellectual property and he foolishly believes that individuals and companies will continue to innovate without any recognition or protection for their inventions.
In comparison to what is at stake, the legal fees in this court battle are a trivial and an acceptable cost.
A company like Apple can take the kind of big risks it takes in creating groundbreaking products like the iPhone because there are protections against hordes of cheap copy-cats like Samsung competing away all their profits and riding on their coat-tails.
In a world without intellectual property, any company could call itself Apple, use the same logo, reverse engineer the same products, and sell them just above cost. That is theft.
Ferguson does, rightly, point out that Xerox could have squished Apple in the late '70s if it had filed a patent infringement lawsuit. Perhaps there should be protections against patent trolls destroying small companies, such as a rule against patent infringement lawsuits for companies with revenues under a certain amount. The answer is not, however, getting rid of intellectual property protections.
Property rights provide incentives for individuals and companies to create valuable products and services. If everything is a remix, nobody can own anything, then all that creativity and innovation will gradually fade away.
But why is greed so important in motivating people? I thought Dan Pink's book Drive said that past a certain salary level, people are just motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Read this excellent blog post and watch this Jon Stewart clip to discover why self-interest is important in motivating people.
I struggle to respect the ideas of people who pride themselves for their 'moderate' beliefs. That usually means that they don't have any beliefs, but are making the mistaken assumption that the middle is somehow safe. I already know what 'the moderates' are going to say, as they strike a position between my own and Ferguson's. They are going to say that 'extremists' are wrong to recognize only the claims of society or only the claims of the individual to ownership, but that both society and the individual have legitimate claims. They are going to propose that the government strive to 'balance' those claims.
Again, that is dangerous.
The Constitution was deeply rooted in a political philosophy that believed that the powers of the government derived from rights on loan from individuals. You see this in the 10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Power devolves to the people. The government does not give us our rights. Quite the opposite. All rights are already ours, by nature, as human individuals. We give the government its power. When it taxes us, we transact: our money to provide for the services required to preserve an environment where freedom and rights can flourish, through the establishment of law, order, and defense.
That, at least, is how it was intended. And how, I believe, it should remain. There is clarity in that relationship.
When you start recognizing something as vague as 'society' as a separate entity with its own rights and claims, pitted against those of individuals, and granting discretionary powers to some elected body to 'balance' those claims, you open Pandora's box.
One plausible explanation for Ferguson's Ford quote is that the great industrialist was trying very hard to pacify and appease the mob. The most successful individuals and organizations have always been terrified of the jealousy of the people, which is so easily inflamed against them. They realize how precarious their empires are. So they say things to be endearing, but in the end, they just make the problem worse.
Apple is in very much the same position today with their $100B dollars in cash. Politicians are swirling around the company like vultures. All they need to do is black-mail them with the threat of an anti-trust lawsuit or special regulatory oversight or new taxes, etc., and they can get them to do whatever they want.
If everything is a remix, then you lead the entire economy down a very slippery slope. And before long, they'll be coming for you, uncle. Saying you didn't build that. So stay sharp, speak up, and keep winning.
You may never set expectations
Explicitly, that is
Perhaps you do it towards the beginning
Or a disciplined monthly or quarterly check-in
Maybe with employees, lovers, or friends
That is good, healthy
Practice it often
Like syncing or recalibration
Hitting the reset button
But no matter what you said during your last check-in
Every interaction you've had since then
The way you treat them
The substance of your conversation
The amount of time spent
The stance of your pose and the look in your eye
All, set expectations for future interactions
Remember, there is what happened
And what we tell ourselves happened
The two are not always the same
In fact, they diverge
More, with every passing recollection
Watch for the hidden surprises:
This wasn't going to last forever
You weren't going to get a raise
Did I say so?
You thought so?
It's not that simple.
Because I thought you were going to be there for me.
And I thought you were always late.
But you don't care about details, right!? Oops.
if you're setting expectations at every encounter
You might as well sculpt them
Alright Michelangelo, have at it
But beware, David's sculpting you too.
Happiness is the cult we don't know we're in. Our culture seems bound to it, obsessed, tortured. For how many of your friends is happiness the arbiter of every decision, big and small? The locus of all orbits, the filter of all substance.
It is as if…
With fingers held to pulse, we check: 'Am I happy yet?' Or, like a waking reflex, a morning ritual, we ask: 'Mirror, mirror, who is the happiest of them all?'. When the mirror responds, 'You, my queen', all is well. But when it betrays our fears, and the answer changes to 'Snow White', then, aghast in horror, we cry: 'No! It can not be!' And the kingdom trembles.
Happiness isn't the point. Just a bi-product. Something that you can't control, that happens when you least expect it, something you shouldn't chase because you'll never catch, the fleeting nymph of our hearts. No short-cuts. The only way round is the long way round. The way of fulfillment, of purpose, of meaning. It cuts up, steep and winding, through the mountain pass. The crag of sacrifice, the scarp of effort. Then down again, through more valleys and forests and plains and deserts than you care to count. Exacting patience beyond will, hard work beyond duty. Only passion holds you to its course. Yes, that way. The way by which you build things that last, create things that count, express things that matter. Long nights spent seeking for truth, resolving paradoxes, exploring mysteries, mining for the profound, explaining what is, imagining what could be. Striving, straining, to summon great work, to rise to the exceptional, to give life to all the art that's inside your breasts, to see this journey through, performing the part as best it can be played, not for the sake of any audience, but for the playwright, and for the story itself. That way. Maybe here, maybe there, maybe happiness will find you. Maybe it won't. Heed her not, she can't stand neglect, that is the surest way to seduce a nymph.
One night I took a girl in a red dress to a ball. We sang, we danced, we drank our fill. The room swirl'd round us. Colorful gaiety and sound reverberating. Then we left to go to the next place. Her friend ordered a town car. He was a very successful businessman. His name was Dave. He had been reading a lot of literature about happiness. Here's what he'd picked up, a hypothesis which he shared with us, as we glided through the streets in the yellow glow of the city lights:
The scientists, apparently, have reached a conclusive conclusion. Happiness is, after all, ruled by a simple formula. The difference between expectations and outcomes. The greater the difference, the less happy the patient.
Therefore, as Dave guessed, the logical course of action for those who wish to be happy is to frequently lower ones expectations as much as possible, so as to let outcomes exceed them consistently by a wide margin.
This struck me as so much preposterous bunk. Yet though I put up a good fight, Dave had quicker wit, and made mince of my arguments. My best was: 'But if that's true, it follows that progress depends on unhappy people!' Which, of course, as a man of progress himself, conceded the point in a hilarious act of self-congratulatory-deprecation. Quite a wit.
Later that night, far too late for a timely riposte, but not too late to save me, I irrefutably refuted his hypothesis.
Therefore, the worst pessimist is the happiest creature alive. Which is absurd.
Brilliant, isn't it? I admit to being quite pleased with myself. Even the girl in the red dress found it attractive. As it turns out, I ended up quite happy that night. Despite my optimism, which I carried the whole night through.
That was the spark that got me thinking…
There are only two ways to solve Dave's formula:
Raise expectations, and exceed them.
Do that. Don't worry about happiness. She'll do as she pleases. Which in this case, is probably waiting for you in your room, wearing a red dress. Fancy that bi-products could taste so sweet.
Be surprised by the delightfully unexpected
Which is the modus happiness usually adopts. Hence, why I recommend ignoring her, and letting her seize you, when you least expect it.
Of the high priests of the happiness cult and their followers
They make promises they can't keep
They sell happiness, as if a lady so noble would be whored
They raise expectations and fail to meet them
Then eventually, the followers leave, and become cynical
They cope by lowering expectations so low, they can always exceed them
That is not happiness
That is giving up
That is living a lie - the worst kind - the kind you tell yourself
Every idea has potential upside. But you can only work on one big one at a time. So why not share the rest? Your mind, after all, is a muscle, and will atrophy in disuse…