The Hackathon of Life

It’s often said that life is a marathon, rather than a sprint. This is sound advice, but I don’t think the marathon is the best analogy for entrepreneurs and creative people. If we’re interested in building lives defined by purposeful creativity, we need to look to a different kind of competition.

I had the chance to attend my first hackathon this past weekend. In addition to discovering the kind of competition made for those of us who weren’t exactly football stars in high school, I think I’ve identified a winning metaphor.

With little to no coding experience, no instruction books, few resources besides pizza and soda, and often little preexisting acquaintance, the high school students at HackStartATL strapped themselves in for 24 hours of brainstorming and development. Though I didn’t participate in the hackathon myself, I eagerly observed the process, curious to see how the teams would do under the conditions.

I was pleasantly surprised. From a motion-controlled speaker system to a will-power boosting alarm clock that sends donations to charities for every “snooze,” the participants produced many valuable proofs of concept as well as workable apps with useful (or at least curiosity-piquing) features.

This is not unusual. Many interesting and even potentially world-changing ideas have come out of these events. Just ask a project like OpenBazaar, recently funded by Andreessen Horowitz.

That’s the genius of hackathons: by celebrating the maker spirit in such an honest and unassuming way, they provide the perfect environment for creating new ideas. It’s not just the ideas that count but the teams that are built, the skills that are learned, and the chances that are taken.

So, what’s the connection to the entrepreneurial life? I think that hackathons can teach us some important things about what it takes to build our careers as young people.

We’re all starting out without skills. We often don’t have connections or resources. We’re never handed a clue as to what we should be doing. Sometimes the best we can hope for is a minimum viable product (which is a lot, by the way). All this to the contrary, we do have our minds and our creativity from the start.

The main lesson to take from “life is a hackathon” would be to focus on this creativity, and to focus on it intensively, in the company of others who want to do the same. This activity doesn’t have to be confined to software developers or tech entrepreneurs. We all have something to make, something to do, and something to leave behind us. If more of us embraced that, the effects would be revolutionary — far more surprising and unexpected than what I saw at the end of the hackathon this weekend.

While I hope to have the chance to participate in future hackathons myself, these events are, after all, only an imitation of what we’re capable of doing in real life. Go out and make something useful and interesting today, with or without the prize.

James Walpole is a writer, podcaster, and marketer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He currently works with bitcoin payment technology companyBitPay and explores the ideas and people behind the decentralization movement with the DECENTRALIZE podcast. He also writes and works with Praxis, a ten-month program for entrepreneurial young learners.

Originally published as “Life Is A Hackathon” at on July 15, 2015.