The Economics of You: A Call to Be Extraordinary

What do we see in ourselves today that is different from yesterday?

Gunther Sonnenfeld
Mar 31, 2015 · 15 min read

Recently, I met with a guy who is a 40-something programmer. His resume is impressive as a senior-level developer and he’s done stuff at very high levels. We’re roughly the same age, although we’ve had very different life experiences.

He wanted to talk to me ‘about a new venture idea’, and was nice enough to buy me lunch and provide some context behind the concept.

His idea is actually pretty cool, kinda game-changing.

Yet, as I got around to asking him specific questions, you know, about him, the conversation pivoted.

“Why do you want to know these things about me?” he asked.

“Have you ever started a business?” I replied.

“A couple. But I ended going back to work for the man.”

“Why did you do that, and what did you learn each time you did it?”

He sat on the questions for a bit, and became very uneasy, shifting in his chair. A few moments later, he leaned towards me, with a scrunched look on his face.

“Look, I have money to throw into this thing.”

I was conscientious of the fact that he didn’t know me, so I maintained a certain composure.

“I’m not worried about the money. I want to know what you actually want to do?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what do you actually want to do in the world?”

He sat on the questions again.

“Can you clarify?”

“Sure.”

This time, I leaned towards him.

“You’re great coder. I can tell. I’ve looked at your work, done my due diligence. But how you code, and why you code is way more important to me than what you code.

Three years from now, the average young person, say, between the ages of 10 and 23, will have a fairly fundamental understanding of JavaScript and LAMP stacks.

Five years from now, everybody will be building SaaS platforms of one sort or another, and everyone will have compliable APIs, to include layers of seamless open and closed source protocols. In fact, SaaS won’t be service, it’ll be something more akin to ‘Software as a System’ or ‘Services as Systems’ with conjoined service layers, competitor-to-competitor hubs, and shared resource pools. Things — processes, currencies, languages — will be radically decentralized.

Websites won’t really be websites as we know them now, and ‘platforms’ will have an array of new meanings and applied contexts. Mobility will take on new forms of cultural behavior. Cities and rural centers will be rewired. We won’t produce or consume or distribute the same way, and advertising will descend into a secondary market, thanks to companies like Amazon. Businesses and governments in general will be going through huge transformations, and will act more like holding companies and federated ecosystems than general assembly lines or porous, flailing bureaucracies.

People will be managing more and more of their own data, and will be faced with the commercial and ethical ramifications on a daily if not hourly basis, as well as requests to spy on one another. All of us are going to be faced with decisions that immediately affect how free we think we are, and how willing we are to be activists in our own virtual and physical futures. Basically, any reality we conjure will have immediate consequences.

Seven years from now, the average product manager will be a software developer, the average software developer will be a budding hardware developer, and everyone will have a fundamental understanding of blockchain technologies. There will be dozens of effective alternative currencies and emerging markets blooming with ecological advancements.

We will already have pervasive 3D manufacturing, and payment and barter systems will be totally different. We may even discover, through undeniable evidence, that we’re not actually alone in the universe, and certainly not alone on this planet.

Ten years from now, the web will not only have been entirely rewritten, but likely reinvented through ‘digilog’ hybrid browsers, several times over. We will have entirely new operating systems, a diversity of economic and sociotechnological options, and people themselves will even be genetically different from the way they are now, just as they have been through the generations, but now the biological advancements will accelerate and the splicing will occur in quicker half-lives, even though as vessels (bodies) we will actually last longer. The Soul will always remain challenged, and in question, even though it shouldn’t.

We will look at history differently, and will ask new questions of our existence in the Universe, starting with the metaphysical, quantum considerations we are making right now.

I can’t really speak to what life will be like 20 years from now, but right now what matters is that you don’t treat yourself or anyone else like a fucking commodity. You need to think, act and become a real human asset, a participant in humanity’s well being, so to speak. Because all of it is on the line, and way too many people are acting like sheep, like automatons without any sense of purpose, and that is not only sad, but pathetic given what we’ve been gifted, and the inherent powers we possess as thinking, feeling beings.

And I need to know that if I invest in you, and that you invest in me, that we will actually build a culture and a set of intellectual property that is adaptive and extensible. Because whatever the hell you’re building in code right now will most likely be obsolete tomorrow. And that’s just a fact.

So again, I ask: What do you really want to do in the world?”

He took in the question, cracking a smile, nodding his head in a measured motion. His eyes stopped shifting.

“What do you want to do in the world?” he then asked.

I grinned from ear-to-ear. The conversation went on for three more hours.

— — /////////// — — — — —

In my life, so far, I’ve experienced three kinds of ‘success’:

1. The kind that’s prescribed (“How much money do you make?” “How much stuff do you have?”)

2. The kind that’s deterministic (“You need to do this or that…” “You must do one thing really well…”)

3. The kind that’s pure passion- and love-based (“This is what I really love doing, and I really don’t care if I make money doing it.”)

Truthfully, all are interesting in their own ways, and I suppose they don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but given the mechanistic leanings of the world (or my world, the one I’ve had a hand in shaping), this is how it’s played out for me.

The key in all of the associated experiences has been coming to understand and embrace my own personal value.

I can unequivocally say that there is nothing more important. In fact, there really is no ‘success’ without a real countenance with personal value. And, unfortunately, many people don’t value themselves, which is why they over compromise their value, while losing all perspective around who they are and what they want for themselves, to include money.

If you were to ask my family members what about their life and choices make them successful, or have made them successful, you’d get an interesting array of answers. And all of these answers, in one manner or another, tie back to personal value.

My father — a recently retired physician of 52 years who has two biochemical patents still in use, and treated one of the first AIDS patients in world history — would tell you that he’s saved hundreds of lives. And he has. And given that he’s survived the Holocaust, fought in the Korean War, and had a heart transplant, it’s pretty clear at this point that what he’s done and why he’s here are completely aligned.

There have been no less than twenty-five (25) times I can remember in which someone on the street heard my name and asked if I was his son, saying how grateful he or she was that my father saved his or her life, or that of a friend or family member. As his namesake, I can’t even begin to tell you what that feels like. It sure says a lot about developing personal value.

My mother had a long career in finance and corporate communications. She was an analyst at Merrill Lynch at 23, ran real estate mogul David Murdock’s equities desk at 25, and at 26, gave birth to me while doing her first set of really big M&A deals. By the time she was 35, she had engineered the Lorimar-Telepictures merger, and helped steer their buyout by Sony. After that she started and sold a couple of companies. Later in her career, she would take a senior executive position at KB Home, where she helped CEO Bruce Karatz reposition the company to unprecedented earnings before the options backdating scandal took hold.

She’d probably tell you a few things about her success, and lots about personal value. One story might be that she persevered in a fiercely chauvinistic and misogynistic corporate culture, or that she was a women’s rights activist, or that she fought to develop programs for the poor (which she did). But I’m pretty sure the most resounding thing she would say is that she raised two wonderful men (my younger half-brother, Gino, and me) and that she sacrificed everything for them. And she did, including the houses, the cars and the 401k plans.

My eldest half-brother, Alexis, never went the corporate route. But he’d tell you about his triumphs in free climbing Half Dome in Yosemite, or the time he survived a fall with a 70-pound pack on his back, breaking both his legs, and had to be airlifted off the mountain. Or his scaling of Mount Whitney (the highest peak in North America). Or all of the stuff he’s done as an activist to preserve the sanctity of Joshua Tree National Park, where he lives. Or the fact that he’s a talented indie jazz-blues pianist. And most of all, that he’s a good father to his son. He’s proud that he lives a modest life by his own choosing, loves to climb and loves to build, and for the most part, he is happy, and is aware of why and when he isn’t.

One thing I can say about his personal value is that it radiates outwardly; this is a guy with whom you can talk about anything, and he’ll have an incredible, diverse perspective on the subject matter. I have to assume that having time to immerse oneself in nature, and to see the world differently, enables a person that kind of capability.

My half-sister, Gail, graduated with a masters in architecture at Columbia and flirted with careers in entertainment, but ended up as an academic, teaching film and design courses, while taking care of her mother. Gail has produced several documentaries, and was kind enough to ask me to collaborate with her on one called ‘Algren’, which has garnered critical acclaim. We plan to work together on two new projects, including my dad’s story (a data narrative with Marc Mazurovsky, former curator of the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum).

Having gotten to know Gail over the last 32 years (I didn’t meet her until I was 10), she probably feels the least successful out of all us (she’s said as much to me many times). But I think she has unique success story, because she’s devoted a majority of her life to helping and enriching others with the capacities to see their own creative potential.

My middle half-brother, Stefan, is literally a media mogul, and has his own Wikipedia page (I always laugh with him and other people about that). He’s got a fascinating success story: Here’s a guy who never graduated from college but whose business case study has been used, and is still being used, by the Harvard Review. He’s also been named as one of the top 100 most powerful people in Hollywood. How’s that for bucking the system?

And the best part? His going rate is based on having ‘the best eye in the business’. Sure, that can mean a lot of things, but in terms of personal value… Well, wow.

What’s incredible about Stefan, however, isn’t just the fact that he’s built a post-production empire (because he has)… He’s a part-time sheriff deputy. About five years ago, he decided to become a cop and signed up for the academy. He didn’t tell anyone (I didn’t know about it for a while), and while working 12-hour days, he would slip out to do his studies as a cadet. He graduated second in his class. Now, he does patrols on certain weekends.

So, apart from raising three talented girls (his eldest just got into Columbia’s Masters program in education), Stefan might tell you that his success has been most recently about service to the community.

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Obviously, there are different levels of success, and ways in which we feel successful. Personal value is very much tethered to not only how we view ourselves as being successful, but how we actually feel when we experience some form of success.

The thread that courses throughout these scenarios seems to be the ability to be unreasonably human.

Being unreasonable in world of tremendous superficial pressures is really hard to do. It’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit of money. It’s fairly easy to make money. It can be really hard to keep money, and more importantly, maintain your integrity while trying to keep it. That’s a familiar story for a lot of people.

So being unreasonable is a great way to buck the insanity of thinking that success is one type of thing, or a one-way path to good fortune. Because it isn’t. And even if it is for some people, they usually experience a valley after the peak of that single path. I don’t think I know anyone who has money that hasn’t lost it more than once. Further, I don’t know anyone that is ‘happy’ purely being wealthy, in a materialistic sense.

There are still two fundamental questions I ask myself when I start to feel lonely, or disconnected, or somewhat powerless in the face of materialism:

“Who am I without all the stuff?”

And…

“Who am I with all the stuff?”

I usually can’t answer either question in less than ten sentences, and I suppose that’s the point of life, of living an experience, right here and right now.

So, in being unreasonable, you also have to hold true to who you really are. Who you really are and who you become are interlinked, and the experience itself is ever-unfolding. In terms of value, the dynamics probably look something like this:

Starting with Self, we all form identities around being true to our intuited Selves, as well as the truth we seek for ourselves.

As cultural phenomena emerge, our identities link beliefs and assumptions to various notions of individual and shared value. Simultaneously, we create or buy into realities that align us to a craft and a chosen purpose.

As we evolve (or devolve), we develop a countenance with self worth, perceived value, a life purpose, and a chosen craft, which is really the way(s) we relate to other people and help shape the world around us.

Keep in mind that a craft is not the same thing as a vocation; a craft is something that represents how you self-express and inwardly or outwardly project capabilities in the form of service. For example, many people I know in corporate communications or product development vocations are fantastic writers, and so their craft in writing brings a lot of fulfillment and service orientations to their personal and professional communities.

As for truth and service, we are now at a point in ‘history’ in which, by default, we are activists, meaning that in order to exist within ecologies that are effectively ill, the onus is on each of us to create and activate alternative realities.

To be more specific, there are two primary lenses through which to consider your own economic value, as it were.

The first is that the mechanistic, industrial world itself has already imposed its limitations on what you can do for it. This means that with less jobs, more automation, as well as the distributive nature of resource gathering (human and natural), along with less direct access to the use of those resources, you have become a commodity with diminishing returns. At least as far as what your value is by default, you know, on a balance sheet.

The only way to countervail this commodification of human value (not in the Marxist sense of the word) is to decide who you are in relation to what you want and how to position that value to other people. In this way, the value you embody and the value others understand you carry become more and more aligned. These relationships form the aspects of an economy that does have thresholds to what wealth can mean, because that wealth might no longer be about the production and accumulation of stuff, but rather the synthesis of creating things that serve a real purpose, such as helping a farmer grow crops in an area of low food supply, or protecting people from identity theft.

The second lens is way more positive. In this same paradigm — which is undergoing a profound shift from resource scarcity to creative abundance— there is far more potential value ascribed to the individual. This means that as large organizations effectively become holding companies, they will seek unique relationships with people (individuals) who can provide unforeseen value, notably in the form of creativity and other literacies of the imagination. Literacies of the imagination can involve everything from specific intellectual property, to processes for creating partnerships or generating ideas, to providing methods for making things in a commons/public capacity or providing the necessary resources to do so. They are literacies of the imagination because they require your thought process, your intuition, and your perseverance. In other words, your unlimited potential.

Here, it is important to understand that the process is as valuable as the result or outcome.

An abundant world isn’t one in which we consume more, but one in which we share more, consume less, and store efficiently — everything from energy, to cognition and creative inspiration. To understand the importance of process, it is equally important to acquaint yourself with a craft that challenges you to explore, to essentially be uncomfortable with your idea of the outcome, and to be patient with not necessarily wanting one. For example, I use the creation of art (drawing and painting) as a means for that. I can learn how to deal with my own creative and cognitive process(es), and how to apply aspects of it in my ‘other’ work, and the ways I relate to other people, or how I might collaborate with them.

To emphasize the earlier point of about craft and vocation, the modality of creating and learning is critical — in fact, it is existential. Developing a craft likely brings clarity to vocation. In my own ‘work’, I use processes of creating and learning to understand how to better build technologies, to write algorithms, or to refine frameworks for ideation in an organizational setting.

In other words, how to better understand people and their needs.

Just about every domain we can think of is changing and will continue to change, from education, to agriculture, to government, but the ways we self-organize will be even more critical. People can’t self-organize if the relationships they have with themselves and others are broken.

Self-organization requires that we match up our perceived value with our self worth, and that our craft and life purpose are abundantly clear. All are, of course, interrelated.

— — — — ////////// — — — — — -

To be really clear, as an individual, I don’t profess in any way whatsoever to have it ‘all figured out’. I don’t suppose I ever will, and I don’t want to. What I want out of life is simply to exercise my better intentions, and to do so with grace, timeliness and precision. I want to experience as much joy and delight as possible, by being consistently surprised in life. For me, it’s less about predicting or living the outcomes, and more about creating the choices. This is what excites me, gets me out of bed every morning, apart from being in a relationship with someone I love.

But more notable I suppose is the fact that it has taken me a good number of years to fully develop an acquaintance with and embrace my own personal value. I’ve also had a hard time accepting or believing in my own success. Now I just see my relationship to the world in a different light, and so all of that value is relative, and more distributive, and more resonant.

As I see the world, and all the change springing from it, there is a huge opportunity to drop those old narratives, and become more powerful than ever before.

I see that power in you. I see that power in us.

— — -/////// — — — — //// — -

What are your life goals? Do they align with your craft(s)?

In that life journey, how do you see yourself becoming more and more valuable? More ‘successful’?

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    Gunther Sonnenfeld

    Written by

    Co-Founder, Novena Capital + Next Block Group ::: Executive Director, Exosphere ::: cryptoeconomist, ecologist, technologist, builder of good things