Smart people should build things.1 When I first came about this quote, it resonated with me, probably because at the time I was studying at a university where students were funneled into consulting and finance, perhaps the antithesis of building things. I had the tunnel vision of a 21-year-old that knew my decision on what job to take immediately after college was a BIG DECISION that would “determine the rest of my life”.
Lack of perspective aside, there is an immense joy in creation that I believe most white-collar professionals miss out on. Not only that, but gifted people have an obligation to humanity to create that which drives us forward as a species.
Formative Experiences vs. Legacy Building
In my early 20s, my main focus was racking up experiences. I traveled to different countries like a madman, crossing one after another off of my list. I didn’t ever want to miss out on the adventure, the nights out, the people I would meet along the way.
Now, as I settle into my late 20s, my mindset has shifted. I feel the need to produce; to craft a career, to write, to build the close relationships I already have in my life rather than chasing new ones. That’s not to say that the desire for new experiences is no longer there – it is just greatly diminished. I no longer feel the need to meet people that won’t be in my life a year from now. The crazy night out is no longer worth the hangover and lack of productivity the next day. My values have changed from experiencing life and seizing what the world has to offer to creating something of value to offer the world.
Further, creation is the path to building wealth. If you’re not working to make yourself antifragile by building equity or generating multiple streams of income, you’ll forever be trading your time for money.
As kids, we are constantly creating. We draw pictures, devise new games, invent fantasy universes that we populate with imaginary friends. There is an innate, playful yet powerful, drive within us to leave our mark on the world.
To create is human
Contrast this with adulthood. I see smart, talented people in their 20s working at a bullshit job all day, creating slide decks or spreadsheets. Then, tired from work, they go home and passively watch Netflix, scroll through Instagram, or, if it’s the weekend, head to the bar until it’s time to do it over again. This consumption, rather than creation, leads to much of the alienation and existential ennui in postmodern life. This is water.
We were once told that we could be anything that we wanted to be, but our entire schooling system is designed to beat the individuality out of us and train responsible workers. Our drive to create and play is forced to contend with the need to pay rent and have health insurance. It takes intentional effort to break free from this mindset.
Yet, our creative energy still exists. But because we are disengaged from our work, we’re drawn to hollow facsimiles of true creation. This manifests in a few different ways:
- Video games: building skills and progress in virtual worlds.
- The solipsism of sculpting the perfect body: fetishization of two-a-day Barry’s Bootcamp classes, washed down with an organic kale smoothie and a grass-fed steak.
- Taking up a 19th century (i.e., hipster) hobby: brewing beer, woodworking, making artisanal pickles. There’s something tangible and satisfying about these pastimes; they scratch an itch in ways that 21st century knowledge work generally doesn’t.2
But for the majority of people, who don’t have the free time and/or discretionary income those activities require, creative energy is funneled into family-building.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that when you ask people with children how they (i.e., the person you’re talking to) are, just as often as not, the response is a list of all the things their kids are doing. Their kids have become their entire lives. I’ve always found this sad.
I understand wanting to have kids – love, biological drive, all of that.3 But it is inherently selfish to want children. It takes a lot of hubris to think: “Yeah, my partner and I have a complimentary set of neuroses, let’s create a new human with THAT.”
I expect that those of you with a family will read this and think “Check back with me in 10 years when you have kids”. And a part of me expects the same from myself – I fully expect to look back at what I’ve written here in a few years and laugh at myself. But I also think about how much the real world beats down the idealism that we have as adolescents, before we’re exposed to the cynicisms of the world, and wonder if there is a kernel of truth here.
Being a good parent and a good partner is a noble pursuit. But is this the best course of action? Or do people choose to have kids because it is the path of least resistance?
The Cost of Greatness
I think about the companies that have come out of Y Combinator, where during the program founders are told to build their product, talk to customers, eat, sleep, work out, and do literally nothing else.
Or Picasso – perhaps the best-known artist of the 20th century. There is no doubt he was brilliant. He was also a terrible romantic partner and father.
Picasso’s romantic life was a revolving door of affairs and infidelity…[his] singular focus on art meant that everything else in life had to take a back seat, including his relationships and his children.
Les femmes d’Alger, via Quartz
Here’s a question once posed to me, by a large baseball cap-wearing English major at a medium-sized western college: is it our duty to read Infinite Jest? This is a good question, and one that many people, particularly literary-minded people, ask themselves. The answer is: maybe. Sort of. Probably, in some way. If we think it’s our duty to read this book, it’s because we’re interested in genius. We’re interested in epic writerly ambition. We’re fascinated with what can be made by a person with enough time and focus and caffeine and, in Wallace’s case, chewing tobacco. If we are drawn to Infinite Jest, we’re also drawn to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Songs, for which Stephin Merritt wrote that many songs, all of them about love, in about two years. And we’re drawn to the 10,000 paintings of folk artist Howard Finster. Or the work of Sufjan Stevens, who is on a mission to create an album about each state in the union. He’s currently at State No 2, but if he finishes that, it will approach what Wallace did with the book in your hands. The point is that if we are interested with human possibility, and we are able to cheer each other onto leaps in science and athletics and art and thought, we must admire the work that our peers have managed to create. We have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own — that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through — is capable of. It’s why we watch Shoah, or visit the unending scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote (in a fever of days) On the Road, or William T. Vollmann’s 3,300-page Rising Up and Rising Down, or Michael Apted’s 7 Up, 28 Up, 42 Up series of films, or … well, the list goes on.
How many people are wasting their time rearing children or making cheese? And what is their obligation to their immediate family and close friends, as opposed to the world as a whole?
Writing this makes me sympathetic, perhaps for the first time, to the arguments for a centrally planned economy. In the U.S. today, we focus on individual choice, being well-rounded, and the left half of the bell curve (getting test scores up). I’d love to do the exact opposite – identify the geniuses at the far right of the bell curve early on and pour money and resources into their education. Because those are the people who drive society forward; one Jeff Bezos creates thousands of millionaires and hundreds of thousands of jobs.
What is the optimal societal ratio of good fathers to people like Elon Musk,6 Norman Borlaug,7 or Bill Gates?8 Is this even a zero-sum game? To play devil’s advocate, one could argue that exceptional people have more of a moral obligation to reproduce, in order pass on their exceptional genes.
At the same time, when the child is drowning right in front of you, isn’t that the more pressing need?
One notable exception may be programming. When I successfully deployed my first basic web app, I thought “I can create anything”. But hacking on side projects is very different than working as a software engineer:
I’ve met many engineers with extraordinary talent who decided to stop making software. They wanted to program computers all their lives. They were born for it. After spending six, eight, ten years in the industry, they quit for good. Now they’re running breweries and hydroponic farms, with no desire to ever again touch a compiler, let alone get back into the fray.
There is nothing wrong with brewing beer or growing hydroponic tomatoes. What’s sad is that people weren’t pulled into their new occupation by better financial opportunities or conviction; instead they were pushed away from technology. If brewing paid as much as programming, it still wouldn’t have been their first choice. Something had to have gone wrong for them to abandon their first love.
The most powerful drive that any species has is self-preservation – arguably, our consciousness serves no evolutionary purpose and everything that we call life is a just a means for our genes to replicate. ↩
Contrast this with the original review of Infinite Jest that Eggers wrote in 1996. Perhaps in 1996 Eggers was looking to make a name for himself with a critical take, but in 2006 realized he could capitalize by associating himself positively with Wallace? (And how much of what we view as good writing or art is influenced by our own perception, as opposed to what society as a whole dictates?) ↩
Notorious work ethic, three children, literally eradicating diseases around the world. ↩