There are no tricks to make things faster. There are only tricks that make the work come out perfect.
— Larry Petersen, Surfboard Glasser, Oahu
At year’s end, I plan out a series of silly feats for the following year, hoping to stave off inevitability, irrelevance, and death by doing a few things that are a little more physically and mentally challenging than I tried the year before. And, as the year begins, I step back into skate skis, lace on my running shoes, or clip into pedals to start a four to six month cycle of training to prepare for the goofiness.
The excitement and motivation accompanying the start of a new adventure quickly gives way to a mixture of disappointment, discomfort, and apprehension. It is always the same — it sucks. After twenty minutes or so — often, this is the duration of the business end of the first workout, whether I plan it that way or not — I stop, shocked, marveling at the gap between my previous level of fitness at mid-year and the sorry condition I am currently in. I sincerely wonder, given this state of affairs, whether I will be able to achieve this thing that I have set out to do.
The answer, of course, is that this particular person — the one on the skate skis, on the run, or pedaling the bike early in the year, chasing down something hard and scary at the far edge of current ability — will not be able to complete this year’s Stupid Human Trick. Achieving the goal will require that person to cease to exist. That person will be replaced with another version of me — one with a fundamentally altered self-understanding, a new relationship to how my body works and what I do with my time and attention.
What I eat, when, and how much; when I work, how I work, when I sleep and how much, where I spend my time and with whom. It all has to change to permit the transformation. And since the tricks, my personal situation, and my body change year to year, the process is a dynamic system. It will always be terrifying, it will always change, I will always suck at the beginning, and in the throes of preparation I will have to adapt. I will also have to experiment, adding new things to the mix and figure out whether it helps or not. I need to figure out whether something that previously worked no longer works, given a new context. And, I have to figure these things out quickly. Attempting some of these tricks without being appropriately physically or psychologically prepared can be dangerous. Occasionally they are legitimately dangerous — by design.
I am putting myself in harm’s way to be at risk to learn something new.
These yearly games are both a forcing function and a reminder. With a bit of clever design, I can reverse-engineer changes in my life that I want to make by setting goals that cause me to be the person that I most want to be. While the example I provided above is a physical example, it is often the case that the greatest changes that occur—even in the physical tricks—have less to do with how efficiently my cardiovascular engine works. It is all about what’s going in the grey matter that matters.
As you have probably divined by now, moving bits of meat, metal, and space-age plastics through space and time is just the gateway drug to a whole host of other interesting tricks that one can design and, through their enactment, they too have the potential to become mechanisms for transformation.
While the engineer and misanthrope in me appreciates the “hack” — discovering the trick that enables you to get through law school without studying, wringing a few more hours away from things you do that you imagine are “low value”, and generally finding the quickest way through — I have found that, for most of the things that matter to me, the quickest way is not the most effective way.
I do not pretend to know what the boundary conditions are for this principle, or whether it can be generalized, but there are seem to be a lot of things in the world that are not simply not amenable to the hack. And there seem to be a lot more things that, while amenable to the hack, lose some very useful, even essential, level of resolution in the hacking process.
Making it easier is not, necessarily, what I am about. In a fair number of cases, I am busy designing my world to make it harder than it has to be.
During seasons in which high growth entrepreneurship is fashionable—this is one of them—a crop of new startup quacks show up to sell the latest trick, and I get peppered with questions by newcomers enthralled with the idea of playing startup and seeking the secret to #winning the startup game. In these entrepreneurial bubble cycles, my classroom is filled to overflowing by individuals who, in a down cycle, would be pursuing a different socially-approved occupation like investment banking or doctoring or patent lawyering. Now the culture says that it is OK to #crushit in startups, so here they are. In my classes they are trying to do what worked in their other classes — do the least amount of work, be efficient, and figure out the trick to get a suitable grade. They imagine that the world of startups works that way, too.
While other occupations (or courses) may, in fact, be amenable to hacking, social engineering, or “one weird tricking” I assert that the life skills that my students (and most people, generally) have sought to master—compliance, getting through, doing less, e.g. the skills used to get the good grade and the pat on the head growing up—are not just of limited utility in creating value generally (and in a startup setting specifically) but they are actually harmful. I am not alone in this assertion.
Stop looking for the trick. There are tricks in startups, as there are in any domain, but they are an order of magnitude less important than solving the real problem.
- Paul Graham
The person that life has trained you to be—the sum of a collection of little tricks imbued through education and socialization and dutifully practiced to survive one’s life — is little use in creating new value. This is not necessarily bad news. For me, it is thrilling that there are small parcels of the world on which you can still win simply by doing good work. You just have to figure out how to do good work.
But here’s the thing—doing good work means, in large measure, unlearning what life, by default, has trained you to master.
Since I am talking about startups, I will use them as an example. Startups are a place where gaming the system does not work. In a conventional career matchup, value creators lose to adept, personable people pleasers with safe, plausible ideas on the regular. This is why people report that attempting to create something new and install it in the world is one of the most transformative experiences of their lives. It is also why many individuals who founded or participated in companies at their earliest stages are permanently inoculated from, and cannot stomach joining, a large, established, entrenched company battling over scraps of previously-invented value. They have become different people, with a different set of skills oriented toward creating new value and solving new problems.
Given that transformative experience, what a normal person thinks work is looks profoundly stupid to the transformed. And, they are worse at doing that kind of “work” compared to a normal person because they have not practiced it. Many people who have entered the Startup Fun House have a permanently-diminished capability to stomach work that is not linked to value creation. They have become different people.
I like my current day job—research and writing papers—for the same reason that I liked working in startups. Over the long run it does not matter what school you went to or who your advisor was. For the apex predators of the field, the only thing that matters is that the work got done and that it is good work. I am writing for myself first, and the best in my field second. Not the “field” in the general sense. The best in the field. The normal distribution holds wherever you go. How are they going to understand what I am up to, let alone evaluate it?
I am going to work so that it’s a pure guts race at the end. If it is, I am the only one who can win it.
- Steve Prefontaine
But, here’s the best part. Even if it turns out that, for whatever reason, doing good work does not win it does not matter. There is a lot of randomness in the system, no doubt. But doing the work itself is its own reward. You can design the work so that it you get that reward irrespective of the ultimate outcome. Success, if and when it occurs, becomes icing. In this view, occupations can both be about outcomes and they can be about art. A career, and a calling.
While it is extremely important to me that what I produce is impactful and appreciated by my community, it is just as important to me that the process of doing the work transforms me. This is my personal guide to project selection. Not what will happen if I get the intended outcome, but who I will become in the process of attempting to generate the outcome. I don’t need to gin up motivation to show up and do that kind of work. I am compelled to do it. I am unpleasant to be around when I am not.
I observe that for many people entering into the mix of life, the goal is to “stay the same” — to hold on to a large swath of ideas or constructs that they identify as “them” — and try to make sure that as much as possible stays the same. In my view this subtle constraint sculpts the games you play, how seriously you play them, and your sense of humor about it all. The grind is consistent hard work, but designed correctly it also has terrifying alchemical power. It has the power to extinguish the person we have made up, and to which we have become overweeningly attached, and replace that person with something else. Not better. Not worse. No guarantees. Just different.
Trying to avoid our own destruction is futile. The best we can hope for is an orderly retreat, or to ignore the realities on the ground while we are getting overrun. Ultimately, it is futile. It is futile because we are inevitably going to get sculpted by the people we love and those we work with, where we live and what we do. We can either pretend that we are islands unto ourselves—immutable and inviolate—or we can accept that this is not and cannot be the case, and, thus, think carefully about who we love, what we do, and where we do what we do and how that changes us. Our actions and their context — the sum total of Stupid Human Tricks that are our life — can be useful tools to help us sculpt a life worth living, rich with personal meaning and change that is not inflicted on us, but rather directed by us.
We can choose interesting struggles and be defined by them. Or we can outsource the selection of our struggles in life to other people and institutions. We don’t get to have a struggle-free life. But we do get some measure of choice about the struggles we choose. And for those we don’t, we have the ability to choose how we engage with them.
For me, there is no material difference between a startup, my writing, or any other strange project I choose—each thing is designed such that the result transforms the world, and through the process of enactment it also transforms me. The goal is to come out of the Fun House a different person than I was when I went in.
Instead of picking up another book by a productivity guru or startup quack, try something different: The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Gilgamesh, or Dante’s Inferno. Not better. Not worse. No guarantees. Just different.