This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. The Lyceum Address Abraham Lincoln
I, like many people, have lofty ambitions. I would like to found a startup. I want to make something that a lot of people love to use. I want to make a fundamental contribution to my field. I want to write well and be well read. I want to have distinction. I want to be able to play a mean game of go and maybe even learn Chinese.
Sometimes it seems like everyone else has succeeded and I'm failing.
That's nonsense, of course. I haven't failed. I have a Masters degree, and a fine career in a booming field. But when I see someone else who wildly succeeds where I am still trying, I get down. I feel as if an opportunity was taken from me. I feel the gentle indifference of the world1 washing over my meager accomplishments.
I think a lot of people feel the same way. You see someone succeed who you don't think has put in their dues. It happens every week2. Perhaps its a guy on YouTube who inexplicably has over a million viewers a month. Or your friend who landed their dream job. Or someone on the news who sells their crappy startup for millions or billions.
Julius Caesar probably felt something similar when he saw a statue of Alexander the Great. He was deeply dissatisfied with his accomplishments at that point in his life, which seems ridiculous to us looking back on Caesar. It seems like his object was, for him, too difficult to reach.
There are some ambitions that seem to defy any reasonable end goal. Empire building is one. Can you really ever be finished conquering the world? I imagine that Caesar wasn't finished with his life's work when he was assassinated.
I feel like the desire to make good software is actually one of these lofty ambitions. Software sucks, so much, that even great software engineers still make mediocre software. Can you ever be satisfied with your life's work when it's so obviously full of bugs and shortcomings? When in ten years it'll be laughed at and you will be ridiculed for having been so stupid? Software engineering is a profession of mediocrity.
But still we try.
And when we've written our software, and it's full of bugs, weeks late with less features than we promised, we sit back and tell ourselves that billion dollar startup acquisitions are a fluke. They're not real. It's a bubble. They were lucky.
They used the same tools we have available, and they built something that had immense value to someone. We finished some features that no one really wanted anyway, but we say that our sales engineers said they wanted it and they probably know what they're talking about. We fail to apply the same critical eye to our own projects, businesses, and ambitions. Who are we to say that what they are working on has little or no value when we barely know the value of what we create?
But these startup successes are black swans. There is little to be learned from such monumental events. Rational people cannot start ventures with the idea that they'll sell them for billions of dollars. The expected value of a startup is closer to zero than to a billion dollars. Most research is false. Almost everyone is forgotten within a few generations3.
This doesn't mean that life is pointless or that we should stop writing software. Quite the opposite. If we can instead focus our energy on soluble problems and less on success, we can do some real good. It doesn't matter if the crop was already harvested if you aren't a farmer.
Imagine the world you want to live in. What's the difference between where we are now and where you want to be? Is the primary difference that you are better off than you are now? Or is it instead something more noble, where the lives of people around you are enriched?
I want to live in a better place, and I'm going to try to get us there.
My own prestige or lack thereof has nothing to do with it.
"I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world." from one of my all-time favorite books, The Stranger by Albert Camus. Worth a read if you want a different outlook on life. ↩
Part of this is surely the availability heuristic and the affect heuristic. News like this is more available than ever before, so it seems more common than ever. The magnitude of their success is so surprising that your own accomplishments seem inconsequential. ↩
Which makes desiring prestige that much more strange. "It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own." from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius ↩