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Seeds of significance: the renaissance of IRL projects is rooted in their unorthodoxy
Today, IRL projects feel unorthodox and passé to most. I channel my inner Paul Graham x Seth Godin to explain that this is why they’re primed for a renaissance
Happy Friday to the 60 of us, up from 47 last time. I’m so glad you’re here.
I’ve written before about a few of the things I believe in.
Let’s add in-real-life (IRL) projects to that list. IRL simply means “not digital.” Both matter in their own ways, but today, one matters way more than the other.
Spoiler alert: it’s IRL.
I believe IRL is the best way to connect. I believe we need IRL connection more than ever. And here, I explore why I think that today’s perception that IRL projects today are unorthodox and unconventional makes them primed for a renaissance.
I channeled two of the greats as I worked through my thoughts: Paul Graham and Seth Godin. In particular, I re-read one of Paul’s greats, How to Get Startup Ideas, and started reading what is sure to be one of Seth’s greats, The Song of Significance.
I think through Paul’s observation that great ideas often start out looking like toys. I also think through how things that used to be mainstream, but regress to looking like toys, could be hiding great ideas. I think through what it means to do work worth doing, and what impact is worth making.
And I make my claim that IRL connection fits the bill.
Writing this filled me with optimism about the potential for a different way to be. It’s about more than work, which is why it’s so exciting. It’s a different approach to life and leadership - where we lead with humanity and make a difference.
There are a bunch of great ideas in both How to Get Startup Ideas as well as the early sections that I’ve read of The Song of Significance that didn’t totally map to what I wrote about, but I still pulled them out and put them at the bottom. Check them out if you want to save the long reads.
I’m exploring pulling out the section of links to other interesting things I’ve devoured recently (which I call “Curiosities” in my prior essays) into a separate email, so keep an eye out for that every week or so.
I hope you enjoy - and if you do, I’d be grateful if you shared this with a few people you think would also enjoy it.
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Seeds of significance: the renaissance of IRL projects is rooted in their unorthodoxy
The world is further deepening into two camps:
Remote and digital is forever, and
In-person and analog is more important than ever
We have this fascinating dynamic where a digital, remote life (yesterday’s unorthodox, non-consensus worldview) has become today’s consensus orthodoxy.
When what looks like a toy becomes tomorrow’s norm
We (the royal we: society) largely resisted the infiltration of digital technology into our lives at the start of its development. Short decades later, our waking lives are largely digital. We live in digital layers on devices made of metal and glass.
Initially, the innovations that now ubiquitously power our days seemed like toys:
Just as trying to think up startup ideas tends to produce bad ones, working on things that could be dismissed as "toys" often produces good ones. When something is described as a toy, that means it has everything an idea needs except being important. It's cool; users love it; it just doesn't matter. But if you're living in the future and you build something cool that users love, it may matter more than outsiders think. Microcomputers seemed like toys when Apple and Microsoft started working on them. I'm old enough to remember that era; the usual term for people with their own microcomputers was "hobbyists." BackRub seemed like an inconsequential science project. The Facebook was just a way for undergrads to stalk one another.
- Paul Graham, How to Get Startup Ideas
When the toys of our digital tidal wave were invented, they addressed underserved needs. This is what made the early believers love it.
Necessarily, just like anything new, they started small. This is what made people outside of those early believers think they didn’t matter, and why they called them toys.
But as is said, change happens gradually, then suddenly.
As these digital innovations persisted, and their creators continued developing them, they outgrew their toy phase. Their creators made the toys better at addressing the underserved needs. The early believers loved even more, and shared them with others. Those new people became believers of the now-improved innovation.
The toys became important. They picked up momentum, crossed the chasm, and entered the mainstream. They became consensus and ubiquitous.
Now, digital technologies run most of our lives.
This same process governed the rise of the car, the airplane, and any other mainstream technology of today.
Innovations that end up being important turn what looks like a toy - unconventional, bizarre, and unorthodox - into consensus, mainstream reality.
When yesterday’s norm starts to look like a toy
One of the fascinating side-effects of innovation is that it can also turn yesterday’s consensus into what today seems unconventional and unorthodox - passé and suboptimal.
We humans love novelty and potential, so we can come to lose our past in the relentless waves of de novo innovation. As a result, parts of our past end up discounted and disregarded - looking like a toy.
There are certainly many parts of our past that we should leave behind. This is the pure heart and intention of innovation that is core to our human spirit: a constant and collective pursuit of improvement, in ourselves and the world. We are, as Naval says, locally reversing entropy - pursuing order in a world of chaos.
But we can mistakenly throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are plenty of casualties of our constant pursuit of innovation.
Somehow, as more of our day is spent in digital layers, the most ancient and ubiquitous of our human needs have been left underserved. We’re more disconnected than ever.
Today, worldview #2 (in-person, analog-first) is the one that feels unorthodox. We’ve traded digital substitutes for in-real-life (IRL) experiences of connection.
Technology isn’t a silver bullet - we can swing too far into a world that’s too digital. There’s wisdom in our ancient IRL humanity.
Being human is a bodily experience after all.
Is the unorthodoxy of IRL projects the seed of their renaissance?
This could mean, counterintuitively, that building an unorthodox project may in fact have greater impact, and be easier than its unorthodoxy would suggest.
Why would this be?
An unorthodox thing is also a rare thing.
When something that doesn’t matter is rare, well...it doesn’t matter.
It must be said that building something just because it’s unorthodox or rare is not the best idea. It must be needed.
When something is needed, and rare, building that thing will have greater impact, and be easier to build, than things that are either a) not needed and rare, or even b) needed and abundant.
First and foremost, we must work to find what is needed. Then we can examine if it is also unorthodox. If it happens to be both, all the better - the possibilities are profound.
For this subset of projects, however, their unorthodoxy makes them more challenging to see, since it requires being a sort of maverick with courageous and independent thought.
To avoid both the trap of fixating on unorthodox but unneeded things as well as the trap of missing what’s needed simply because it’s unorthodox, we must come back to ground ourselves in the most important question: what do humans need?
It’s the question at the core of any work worth doing, and any change worth making.
As we’ve lived through our digital revolution, the thing that humans need today is, ironically, more of our lives lived IRL and away from screens.
At a glance, our digital avatars are incredibly linked and networked, yet in our physical embodied experience, we feel isolated and disconnected. Even when mediated by a screen, our experience of life happens bodily, IRL. Unless we foster true IRL connection, any digital substitute will feel empty and unfulfilling.
As the world has swung in one direction, the other has gotten simultaneously more needed and more rare - the killer combo.
Today, we need IRL projects of connection more than ever, in a time when they’re rarer than ever.
The significance of a human need is directly proportional to the value in meeting it, which means that there’s more value in IRL connection than ever.
I believe this helps overcome the very real challenges that IRL businesses face relative to digital businesses. IRL businesses are inherently low margin, challenging to scale, and full of friction (i.e., people have to leave the house and interact with other humans).
Anything worth doing comes with its challenges.
What each revolution has in common is that it is inconvenient….It’s rare that it happens quickly or easily, which is precisely why these changes are revolutionary. The revolutions begin at the edges but ultimately end up changing whatever they interact with.
- Seth Godin, The Song of Significance
I believe what’s holding us back is that this change to IRL is inconvenient. It’s convenient to do digital work.
We must be willing to conquer inconvenience to make an impact.
So, to build on Paul Graham: if it looks like a toy, feels unorthodox yet needed, and is inconvenient, those in fact might be signs of a good idea.
Signs of a change we need to make.
Signs of work worth doing.
Signs of impact worth pursuing.
Signs of significance.
The value in IRL zigging when the world is digitally zagging
By doubling down on zigging (IRL) when the world is zagging (digital), a project stands for something.
By having a point of view and a distinctive belief, we invite and attract people who self-select to join our team - both builders as well as members. Through invitation and self-selection, all who engage with the project do so as a sort of vote for, and a declaration of an identity.
By choosing to engage with a project, and by inhabiting and communicating an identity, we begin to create the conditions for connection. We send a statement to the world of who we are becoming, and we extend an offer to others to see us and to connect with us as we are.
Identity is comprised of those deeply human things, like values, beliefs, and experiences, that get solidified and celebrated in connection with others who choose the same. By building a project that assembles people through identity, we sow the seeds of true and authentic connection.
Identity wins over value proposition every time.
By offering a chance for a human to celebrate their identity instead of selling to them, we give a chance for them to embody agency and dignity (internal, human characteristics) instead of extracting judgement, scarcity, and status (external, systematic characteristics).
Attraction, self-selection, and enrollment. Not promotion, exclusion, and admission.
“People like us do things like this. Come join us.”
What better way to foster a strengthening and celebration of identity than to bring people together IRL?
It’s about more than work. It’s about work worth doing
I’m in camp #2.
I believe in technology. I don’t want a world without it. I don’t want a world in which we stop pursuing innovation.
But as we continue pushing technology forward, we need a disproportionate push to build IRL.
Why disproportionate? Because digital technology has now become the consensus and orthodox way to build projects (for the world) and pursue success, wealth, and power (for the individual). Digital technology is what the best and brightest of our day are building.
Couple that with the dramatic dynamics of digital technology’s near-infinite scalability, near-zero marginal cost of production, and near-zero friction and emotional risk for an individual to engage in digital substitutes of our real world, and we get a world being eaten by software.
Everything has its costs, and technology is no different.
While we innovate our way to a future techno-utopia, we must not forget the significance of our now-unorthodox IRL humanity.
And we must build IRL.
Even if it looks like a toy.
Even if it’s inconvenient.
Perhaps especially so.
The reasons that make IRL projects now feel unorthodox and non-consensus still exist. The dynamics that make tech valuable and interesting are real. The challenges that IRL projects face are, too.
But I’d rather take a chance at building something with impact, and struggling to create an attractive business model, instead of building something with an attractive business model, and struggling to create impact.
Life is suffering. It's unavoidable. But we can choose the type of suffering we want to experience. We can choose to suffer for something meaningful, or we can choose to suffer for nothing.
- Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
This isn’t just about building something that the world needs.
This is about impact, significance, and making a difference.
This is about more life. A better, richer life.
That’s what work worth doing is - it’s more than work. It’s about life.
Work is not about what we do. It’s about how we feel, and who we become, while doing it.
I believe that in the future, work and life will feel different than it does today. Leadership, not management. For humans, not systems. In pursuit of impact and significance.
Plus, if I’m right, it may actually be easier and more lucrative than the world makes it seem.
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More Quotes from Paul Graham’s How to Get Startup Ideas
Paul Buchheit says that people at the leading edge of a rapidly changing field "live in the future." Combine that with Pirsig and you get:
Live in the future, then build what's missing.
That describes the way many if not most of the biggest startups got started. Neither Apple nor Yahoo nor Google nor Facebook were even supposed to be companies at first. They grew out of things their founders built because there seemed a gap in the world.
Once you're living in the future in some respect, the way to notice startup ideas is to look for things that seem to be missing. If you're really at the leading edge of a rapidly changing field, there will be things that are obviously missing. What won't be obvious is that they're startup ideas. So if you want to find startup ideas, don't merely turn on the filter "What's missing?" Also turn off every other filter, particularly "Could this be a big company?" There's plenty of time to apply that test later. But if you're thinking about that initially, it may not only filter out lots of good ideas, but also cause you to focus on bad ones.
Which means, strangely enough, that coming up with startup ideas is a question of seeing the obvious. That suggests how weird this process is: you're trying to see things that are obvious, and yet that you hadn't seen.
If you can afford to take a long view (and arguably you can't afford not to), you can turn "Live in the future and build what's missing" into something even better:
Live in the future and build what seems interesting.
Turning off the schlep filter is more important than turning off the unsexy filter, because the schlep filter is more likely to be an illusion. And even to the degree it isn't, it's a worse form of self-indulgence. Starting a successful startup is going to be fairly laborious no matter what. Even if the product doesn't entail a lot of schleps, you'll still have plenty dealing with investors, hiring and firing people, and so on. So if there's some idea you think would be cool but you're kept away from by fear of the schleps involved, don't worry: any sufficiently good idea will have as many.
More generally, try asking yourself whether there's something unusual about you that makes your needs different from most other people's. You're probably not the only one. It's especially good if you're different in a way people will increasingly be.
Since startups often garbage-collect broken companies and industries, it can be a good trick to look for those that are dying, or deserve to, and try to imagine what kind of company would profit from their demise. For example, journalism is in free fall at the moment. But there may still be money to be made from something like journalism. What sort of company might cause people in the future to say "this replaced journalism" on some axis?
Finding startup ideas is a subtle business, and that's why most people who try fail so miserably. It doesn't work well simply to try to think of startup ideas. If you do that, you get bad ones that sound dangerously plausible. The best approach is more indirect: if you have the right sort of background, good startup ideas will seem obvious to you. But even then, not immediately. It takes time to come across situations where you notice something missing. And often these gaps won't seem to be ideas for companies, just things that would be interesting to build. Which is why it's good to have the time and the inclination to build things just because they're interesting.
Live in the future and build what seems interesting. Strange as it sounds, that's the real recipe.
More Quotes from Seth Godin’s The Song of Significance
No grades, no check marks, no badges. I’m not in charge of you, and I’m not manipulating you. I’m simply establishing the conditions for you to get to where you said you wanted to go.
You tell me where you’re going and what you need. You make promises about your commitment and skills development.
I’ll show up to illuminate, question, answer, spar with, and challenge you. I’ll work tirelessly to make sure you’re part of a team of people who are ready to care as much as you do.
We can get real.
Or let’s not play.
Wonder is the open-ended version of curiosity, without seeking an explanation to solve the problem.
We can’t plan a basketball game in advance. If we focus on culture and process, however, we can enable the players to achieve their goals regardless of how the game unfolds.
What do humans need? What will create significance for those who interact with us?
What is the change we seek to make? Does it matter to the people we work with?
The answers will vary, and there isn’t a playbook yet. Simply a compass and a way of seeing what matters.