This I believe…
As I wander through my mind’s version of the house I grew up in, certain still lifes are more vivid than others. The sharpest of them all are the books, placed with careful consideration on various surfaces in case a guest might pick one up. In the living room, on a serving tray rotated slightly off center of the ottoman, sits the latest three volumes of The Best American Short Stories. An item perennially on my mom’s Christmas list. The coffee table nearby contains a copy of The Revenge of Gaia warning of the coming climate crisis, my dad’s purchase. In the family room, under the end table next to the most comfortable chair, sit stacks of old editions of The Atlantic, Us Weekly, and Time. Their pages are stuck together now, but their covers remember nearly two decades of technology, politics, and gossip.
As a kid I didn’t read many books outside of Harry Potter and whatever was assigned in English class. One of the few exceptions appeared in the downstairs bathroom sometime during my junior year of high school. For some reason I took it with me one day, reading it in the mornings while I waited for my ride to school. This I Believe is a collection of essays responding to the prompt posed in its title. The concept is simple: write a few hundred words about something you believe deeply. In the introduction, the book’s editor Jay Allison challenges the writer to “aim for truth without accusation, patriotism without political cant, and faith beyond religious dogma.”
The eighty or so essays detail the principles that guide the lives of nurses, teachers, and famous figures all side by side, all equally insightful. They stuck with me. Proof that the people we worship as profound can be guided by simplicity and that the lives we dismiss as simple can be profound.
This past year has brought a number of ultimately good but acutely difficult decisions about what I want to do with my life. I stepped off the academic treadmill as a student, graduating from MIT with my PhD. I turned down an offer to become a faculty member at my alma mater, realizing that I didn’t actually want that thing I had entered graduate school with the explicit goal of earning. I took a job at a fast growing startup in Boston helmed by one of my mentors. We tripled in size, outgrew our office, and raised tens of millions of dollars in funding for a great mission. I learned a lot about managing people and building a company. And last Friday, I quit.
I’m extremely grateful for the people I have been able to learn from and I feel incredibly lucky to have had these choices. But they were not easy. As I faced them, I repeatedly found myself back at the book I picked up ten years ago. I resolved that the essay I would write would be the path that I follow.
I believe in ‘billion people problems’. For two summers, I was lucky enough to intern in Google[X], the skunkworks responsible for things like self-driving cars and balloons that will blanket the world with internet. Of all the inspiring people I met and amazing technology I saw, the single most important thing I took away from the experience is what it feels like to try to solve a problem that a billion people have. Billion people problems are hard. They require radically new technology, radically new ways of thinking, and radically higher tolerances for risk and failure. I learned not to be scared by these things. I got used to waking up every day and not feeling naive for thinking that “it’s possible”. I learned to trust that other people will share this ambition and this burden.
I believe in density. I have devoted the last eight years of my life to understanding the geography of human behavior. That geography is dense and defined by cities. The physical proximity of people to each other breeds productivity, efficiency, and culture. The coffee shop on the corner permits serendipitous connections that create new ideas. The roads we drive on and buildings we live in must be shared, leading us to consume less and save more. The sheer number of people and resources in one place supports a diverse ecosystem of occupations, symphonies, and restaurants. But for all its good, density invites problems. Congestion, disease, and complex logistics are a constant threat. Though technology is racing to solve them, billions of lives are affected.
I believe in data. Over half a century ago, Jane Jacobs published The Life and Death of Great American Cities. In it she described cities as “problems in organized complexity — organisms that are replete with unexamined, but obviously intricately interconnected, and surely understandable, relationships.” For decades these relationships were left underexamined because we had no good way to measure them. The last ten years has changed that. Nearly every person on the planet now carries a device in their pocket that records what they are doing, with whom, and where. The ubiquity of smartphones means that every piece of data can be tagged with a location and enriched with the context of physical space. The existence of this data raises huge and important issues of privacy and equity, but also presents the opportunity to understand our lives and make them better.
I believe that as the world migrates online and into cities, better use of localized data can make a meaningful, positive impact on the lives of billions of people. Because I believe this, I’ve decided to start something new: Wherehouse. Wherehouse is a company that exists to give people and organizations the tools they need to learn from their location data. I want there to be fewer traffic jams, faster delivery, and more efficient public transportation. By helping others make better use of localized data, I believe Wherehouse has the potential to change the way we live.
I’m thankful for my past, confident in my co-founder, Dan, and excited to build something new.
This I believe.
If you share these beliefs (or disagree with them), I’d love to hear from you. www.wherehou.se
Personal: www.jamesontoole.com @jamesonthecrow
PS — You can find thousands of amazing This I Believe essays at http://thisibelieve.org/