The negative instinct

I’ve seen, of late, a tendency for young, intelligent men (and sometimes women, although this is primarily a male phenomenon) to fight back against the inequity of the startup ecosystem by joining political movements that are far right of Libertarianism. This tendency, one borne out of helplessness and frustration, is also defined by a certain mindset: that the world owes them success.

To be blunt, the world owes the innovator nothing and the innovator owes the world everything. While politics and political largesse lays the groundwork for the intelligent and innovative citizen, it is that citizen who moves things forward. Further, pointing to a political movement’s efforts in innovation – government-backed funds, grants, and the like – as a step forward is endlessly self-defeating. The usual red tape and reporting required by these things relegates them to cronies and back room deals and most “job-building” announcements are aimed at making politicians look good rather than innovators stronger.

In short, innovate first and get political later. Politics, be they left or right or middle, is the anathema of innovation. Even the most progressive beliefs are stymied by popular opinion therefore if you believe a certain thing implement it via your business and not via City Hall or protest.

What you cannot bear, build around.

While political upheaval can affect your ability to build in your own particular city, this upheaval cannot stop the true innovator from building and dreaming. It has been proven time and time again. I recall one CEO who was forced to code on an old mainframe clone in 1980s USSR. He had no access to the machine itself and so had to write his code out onto graph paper and submit it for data entry. The code, which managed some experiments at a psychology faculty in Moscow, ran continuously for two decades. It survived for various reasons but the primary one is that innovations created under duress are the ones that usually stick. Political privation has a way of clarifying the mind.

You’re not changing the world with your product but you are changing the world with your attitude. Your goal is to build a better world even as the old one falls away. It is your responsibility to bring it into the world slowly and surely, not through violence, hate speech, or willful destruction.

One of the defining lines of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is this one: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

But this quote is wrong. It is misattributed and misquoted. The real quote by German writer Otto Ludwig, is a little more interesting. “The highest he could raise himself to was to die gloriously for something; now he rises to something greater: to live humbly for something.” But both versions are extremely helpful to us.

The goal of the innovator is not to die in a blaze of glory. The goal of every space flight is a safe return, not to expand into a comet of light and fall headlong into the sea. The goal of every program is not to push the read heads of the hard drive to the theoretical limit in some misguided effort at testing the platters. The goal is to store data immutably. The goal of the tabulator is not to record mass murder but mass growth.

Every major innovation was born of necessity but did not die in passion. Silicon Valley was born in the Cold War but it did not fizzle out when the Berlin Wall fell. The Internet boom and bust happened at a time of great political upheaval, including 9/11. But that didn’t stop the men and women who built the first websites to build the next ones. The mobile revolution grew up next to the apex of global terrorism where a Nokia could trigger a bomb. This didn’t stop the creatives from bringing us the world in a four-inch rectangle of glass.

There is no such thing as free speech on the corporate Internet but there is such a thing as freedom. Your web server is a reflection of you and, as such, should reflect your best self. If you are not giving back to the world with what you produce, if you are not living humbly for something, you are wasting your time.

Maybe you’re not in the Valley. Don’t let the sadness of your surroundings keep you down. Learn, explore, network, communicate, and grow. Expand beyond the boundaries of politics and political life, innovate past the damage of past historical wrongs, build a tunnel through the walls of prejudice and anger.

I bring this up because I’ve seen too many good thinkers get angry and frustrated. They connect to Internet culture and think that it is insular and that no one can hear them think. It isn’t and the world is listening. Today’s dank meme and shitpost is how we will judge you tomorrow and those who would help you are going to ignore you once they see your young mind. There is something adolescent about these creators, those that go on Instagram and burn money or those who claim to know and sell the secrets to virality to other unknowns. These innovators are not innovators, they are children. They do not create but they destroy it in the cradle, as flies to wanton boys.

In the end we will all become political in our dotage. What side we come down on is immaterial. But politics is inherently non-innovative. Politics is the process of bringing humanity up to a common level. It is up the innovator to raise that level, slowly but surely.