Not so long ago, I thought I wanted to be a writer. I thought I wanted to be a writer because the idea of it is incredible.
Your job is to live; your job is to go out and be hyper-attentive to everything that’s happening all around, to take part in it and to transform all of these moments and insights into stories.
All you need is a computer. Not even. All you need is pen and paper, and you’ve got a shot at creating something that can move millions of people. And, if it’s really, really good, you might even get them to say, “Wow, I’ve lived that too.”
I even tried it.
I spent a summer in San Francisco waking up at 6 am, walking to the same café in the Marina (which felt like a writer’s thing to do), writing until lunch, reading during lunch by the water with the Golden Gate in the background, writing some more in the afternoon and then going out with friends in the evening to give me more experiences to write about.
I liked parts of it. I liked what I described above, and I liked that overwhelming feeling you get when you’re not quite sure your frenetic fingers belong to you and everything is just pouring out with no visible end.
What I didn’t like was the loneliness and the passivity.
I realized I like working with people. I like creating new products with my friends and fighting to get them out there because it feels like the closest thing to being one of those small groups of adventurers you read about in the history books who will live and die for their mission and for one another.
I find that most people become disappointed as they grow up, surprised life is not turning out to be as epic and electrifying as they were promised it would one day be.
Entrepreneurship feels like an escape from that disappointment, a way to live life epically, terrifyingly and euphorically, and a rare chance to make something exceptional happen.
That’s why I found writing to be passive in contrast. Because the most brilliant writing seems to be brilliant for its ability to reveal the human condition in a form that is more raw and naked than anything you’ve seen before: the good parts and the painful parts, with a little added weight on the painful parts. When you read it, you actually can’t believe someone is allowed to be this honest.
Vonnegut, Camus, Sartre, David Foster Wallace and the likes gave me the impression that we were reaching the end of something. They are so good at showing how absurd life can be and questioning everything about its every essence that you wonder what’s next. It’s great to read and very consoling and very frustrating because it hurts to realize the best stuff about life recognizes its sadness most of all.
I started asking myself whether life was mostly good or bad. The idea that none of us asked to be thrown into this world and that, in most historical periods, most people would probably have been better off not being born bothered me.
Entrepreneurship felt more optimistic. It had all the wonder of being a writer but with the added, “F*ck it, let’s do something about it.”
You live your life and keep an eye open. You’re sitting at the café, in the subway, walking in the street during rush hour, waiting to be patted down at the airport and you see what people are doing.
You’re an anthropologist with a philanthropic inclination, always looking for a way to help, to make something better. You’re a psychologist; you see what people do when they’re on autopilot, when they’re bored, what they have on their phones and computer screens.
You wonder what their everyday looks like and if they’re happy about it and if they ever feel that same, precise fear or disappointment or frustration or excitement as you. You’re open to serendipity and have the impression that the world will show you what you are meant to work on.
You progressively develop the unsettling awareness that you cannot take anything as a given. All of those rules and classes that were imposed on you, that homework, the advice and orders you heard from people who said they knew better and that you didn’t think of questioning.
You start demanding that everything be right and always ask yourself if you are happy with the way things look and are being done and wonder about what is hidden, what is out of reach and what you’d like to see change.
Nothing is boring, even boring things. You fix; you patch; you make delightful what was horrible.
That’s how the great founding stories are told at least. Of course, it’s a little exaggerated and polished and romanticized connecting the dots backward, but it still feels like the universe is conspiring to get these things to happen.
Getting the idea for Uber while hopelessly waiting for a cab in the snow in Paris; for Airbnb when trying to attend a conference, but not having enough money to afford a place to stay; for Flatiron Health after seeing several friends and family members battle cancer; for Altschool when you realize the best employers often hire from the top 10 colleges, which makes life so much harder for people who would be great if they were given a chance. And it goes on.
The list of those incredible "aha!" moments when you decide you’re not going to wait until someone else makes it happen for you goes on.
This irreverence for what is and desire to defy all of the frustrating parts of life have no limits.
I think we’re on our way to redefining entirely what it means to be a human being. We’ve already started doing it; we are becoming more and more the designers of our own universe.
And, of course, that’s scary. All that power. Everything that could go wrong. Just look at how the Hollywood movies portray the future.
If the world is our Play-Doh, if we are becoming our own gods, how are we to decide what is right and wrong and do we even get to decide?
For example, is it inevitable that we’re all going to continue being zombie addicts to our cell phones, tablets and apps to the detriment of our relationships, concentration and overall happiness and satisfaction with life?
Is that what the modern world will and should look like? Are we going to pollute and recklessly consume all of our resources until we’ve spoiled the only human-friendly planet we know of?
I don’t think so. I think we are aware of all the good things inventions have brought along. Longer, more comfortable lives with more access to information and an enhanced ability to communicate and to voice opinions and overthrow bad leaders and regimes, etc., etc., etc.
We’re also aware of the problems, of the mental pollution of our cell phones, physical pollution of our factories and travel, unequal distribution of resources and technology, and we’re fixing all these things.
All of what we see today is just a rough draft upon which we keep improving. And, of course, we can’t be naive and think everything is necessarily going to work out, even if we don’t do anything.
What makes me sound like an optimist with the candidness of a 5-year-old is that a handful of people can produce something from which the whole world can benefit. That’s the leverage that comes with technology.
A handful of people can do very bad things with bombs and airplanes and a handful of people can create electric cars, cure cancer, send us to Mars, provide better education to millions.
Like great writing, it might take 15 drafts to get it right. And when we do get it right, it feels perfectly smooth, indistinguishable from what we call “natural.” As if it’s been around forever, like running water and electric lights.