Stop Trying to Move the Needle
It’s true I’ve been incredibly lucky and privileged to be able to write this.
Rewind to 6 years old in Krakow, Poland with little Michael jumping into mud puddles under the care of young parents still in graduate school. I thought I was pretty damn slick when, in a fortuitous twist of fate, my family “temporarily” relocated to New Jersey in the Land of Dreams, the United States of America. My dad arranged a limo to pick us up at the airport as we first stepped on American soil. No idea how long he saved up for the glitz.
Soon, we were sending photos back to our Eastern European family of us wearing nice clothes against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty. An immigrant cliche. The words of English we knew on entry – originally “hungry, thirsty, bathroom, crayons” – soon couldn’t be counted on both hands. “Temporary” turned to a little longer than we expected.
Another jump forward, with English conquered (free invitation to call me out on any mistakes), Permanent Residency cards in hand, and their child off to college, my parents had done very well. The Gasiorek settler flag had been firmly planted.
But I hadn’t really accomplished very much, had I?
I followed my family to America. I got good grades in school. I participated in some clubs, won a few little awards, played my fair share of video games. I was accepted and am soon to graduate from college with some side projects. Some were even cool.
But really, what of that is anything but average? We work on things like a new app to connect people more readily, the small T-shirt companies, or maybe your project is more on the self-branding slant. Absolutely vital part of self-exploration, I think we’d agree.
You hack, you hustle, you make beautiful things that make the lives of smartphone owners or TV watchers or marketing managers easier. You’ve got a sweet startup already gunning to recruit you, but you’re choosing between that and consulting, or maybe spinning it off into an acquisition by a company that’ll eventually bore you into starting your next big thing. A car, house, beautiful wife/handsome husband (also clever), and loving family are in your future, too. You’ll work hard but smart to provide for them beyond their needs and nurture your brood of the next generation with well-earned wisdom. That’d be nice. It is nice – and I hope as much for many bright, successful people. You’ve moved the needle and then some. You’ve earned your restful years.
But you don’t want to just move the needle.
Life is good. But as your server brings your second drink to the beach chair tickled by waxing ocean tides, there’s that little voice that got you this far – again.
Let’s sat you’ve been looking at Google’s 10x approach.
Internet for everyone? Clever.
Self-driving cars? Ambitious.
Life extension? Audacious!
Maybe you’re a follower of Tim Ferris.
Setting up a passive income business – that sure is smart.
Using that free time to optimize your physicality? That’s ambitious, too.
Unlocking the strategies to master nearly any skill in a month’s time? Who does this guy think he is?
Some of this seems like fiction already, so let’s run with it: @Jason had interesting things to say about Google versus Wayland Corporation, the fictional futurism conglomerate of the Alien series. Seems like they’re both to be pinnacles of ambition for our age, even if only one is real.
Take a look at the fictional company timeline, going from bottom-up:
Days after his 14th birthday, Peter Weyland is granted a Method Patent for a synthetic trachea constructed entirely of synthetically-engineered stem cells. It is his 12th registered patent to date. -October 2004
Seems mad, right? Until you consider more ambitious people already exist: they’re recruited annually by the Theil Foundation, UnCollege, and other groups invested in those not yet jaded, not yet anchored by responsibilities, not yet made unimaginative by the mundanities of societal expectation.
Here’s Laura Demind: in a research lab by 12, at MIT by 14, awarded a $100,000 grant by the Theil Fellowship by 17. She wants to cure aging. She’s off to a good start.
You want to knock the needle off its axis
Why do we settle for less, follow the crowd, and limit our ambition?
We have ready internet access to all of the world’s knowledge. We understand English, arguably the language most common to business and research. We have the time and capital necessary not to think twice about reading through this whole piece, maybe even checking an email or two in between. By reading this alone, we admit we are infinitely privileged.
Technology, internet access, education, and entrepreneurship are all becoming cheaper – sometimes even free. These pillars will become transformative in bringing to bear more vibrant economies, uncovering savants in developing nations, and empowering students and the unemployed alike to take charge of their fate. The tools already exist. It’s the ambition that is sometimes lacking.
What excuses do we collectively have for not doing that which brings to the most good to the most people? Honestly, not very many.
So, hopefully you read this before that third drink in time for the sunset has quieted that nagging voice. And, hopefully, this time, you give it a listen and see what plans it might have in store for you yet.