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Reflections after a tragedy
Someone very important to me was recently diagnosed with a rare cancer, which spreads incredibly fast and will likely be fatal. In a matter of weeks, he went from perfectly healthy to being in a hospital, mostly unresponsive. There is no making sense of these moments, so I offer the rest of this simply as a window into the thoughts that have been swirling in my head over these past days. Hopefully, they will be of use to someone, and if that someone is just myself, that’s ok too.
Stories like this are fractals of tragedy, so many nested horrors that each follow the same pattern. A repeated fractal in this case is around timing — this happened right as he was retiring from a very long and intense career, and just starting to live out his dream of gardening, painting, and traveling. Decades of delayed gratification erased in a matter of moments.
It’s always gardening, painting, and traveling, isn’t it?
When we close our eyes and imagine these luxurious lives when money isn’t the focus of our days, we dream of creativity, cultivation, and exploration. Sometimes it’s not painting but some other creative pursuit, not gardening but some other form of cultivation, not traveling but some other form of discovery.
I’ve been fortunate to work on a number of projects that help people follow their passions, and the unfairness of these past days has given me better words to articulate why I think that matters. We need to help people do more painting, gardening, and traveling every day, week, and year of their lives.
I’ve written a lot about Wikipedia, in fact this newsletter is named after my favorite essay “Coase’s Penguin” which talks about how and why peer production — such as the work of the huge network of Wikipedia contributors — can outcompete traditional firms. A central point of that article and my thesis on the future is that simple economic models often miss the fact that people do certain things just because they’re deeply satisfying. Editing Wikipedia is about traveling the world of information, painting it onto the screen, and gardening the constantly changing graph of updates and connections that time produces. It’s not about the money, clearly.
The obvious question is whether anything about the future world suggests we can actually build successful careers via effort that is more innately rewarding. I think so, because of two trends:
It is becoming ridiculously cheap to produce basically anything. AI can write software or design images, robots can build other robots or grow vegetables, people can create TikTok videos that would have taken whole studios to make just decades ago.
The marginal cost of distributing information via the internet is basically zero.
In other words, if the fundamental cost around delivering something of value is “cost of production * cost of distribution” then basically the cost of delivering something of value is going to zero.
People call the intersection of these trends the “Information Age” but often the connotation is negative. We’re “all drowning in information” and “fake news and social media is ruining our lives” and so on. I’m not saying I disagree that a lot of things are worrying about the current world we live in, but I just can’t help but maintain an optimistic outlook on the kind of work we all need to do to use the Information Age to build a better future. Because basically in a world where the cost of delivering value is zero, the scarce resource is attention, and that means the scarce skill is finding the right information, curating it into something useful, and using it to create something new — traveling, gardening, and painting.
I’m not sure I can quite put a finger on it, but so far the intrinsically rewarding work we’ve gotten from the Information Age has felt out of balance, as if we retired but could only travel without coming home, our paint without taking a break to find new inspiration. Social media platforms have been built to keep us painting tiny little paintings and throwing them over our shoulder into the wind, or trying to cultivate a garden of knowledge that’s way bigger than what we’d actually enjoy tending. Wikipedia may be a better example of balance but it’s certainly not for everyone — how can more products help people balance these three intrinsically rewarding activities to find real fulfillment?
I’m also not suggesting that everyone needs to be a creator or entrepreneur and go off and do their own thing. Doctors, lawyers, scientists, and many other “traditional” professions all have varying degrees of painting, gardening, and traveling, and I’d argue that if we build things correctly the information age will increase those dramatically. If laboratories are more automated, scientists can spend less time pipetting liquids from one place to another and more time navigating the world of information, cultivating it into beliefs, and painting it into questions. The technology we build to help people follow their passions doesn’t just apply to individuals, it also empowers organizations and communities to employ more painters, gardeners, and explorers.
I’m not going to connect any of this to specific projects I’m excited about (though there are many), just because I don’t want this post to be about products and businesses and strategy. I just wanted to say that it’s often in the darkest moments that we’re forced to revisit whether what we’re doing is truly important, and this was my attempt at doing that out loud.