Life is often described as a road, a journey through experiences and temporary destinations that we hope will one day sum to something more coherent.
Overused as it is, there is something soothing about this metaphor. Roads don’t just sprout up in the wilderness, but instead require deliberate technical planning and intelligence. We are constantly confronted with randomness in our lives, and there is comfort in the feeling that this “road” is part of a grand design by some higher transit engineer who is carefully tending to our journey – laying out the macadam before us so we never lose our life’s destiny.
This transit metaphor has always bothered me, though. No engineer would willfully build the route that many of our lives have taken. There are so few straight courses – so few highways –– that one begins to think that the road was purposely built just to be frustrating to travel. The destination of our life’s journey may be only miles away, but it can take thousands just to detect the direction of its meandering course. How about we cut back a bit on new road construction and start putting in some traffic signs?
The other underlying frustration with roads as journeys is simply that it makes the assumption that we are always moving forward. We don’t. We sometimes drive in reverse. We sometimes take complete breaks from the wheel as we try to size up what the hell that engineer was thinking when he built this infernal pathway. Sometimes, we never return to that wheel, and we never complete the journey laid before us.
That was the case for three of my friends over the past few months. Their journeys were cut far too short – probably far shorter than they or anyone else ever thought possible. It’s something I have unfortunately had to think deeply about – the potential lost, the journey never traveled.
These are the sorts of triggers of fractional life crises (in this case, between a one-fourth and one-third life crisis, so call it a 7⁄24 crisis). What I learned from the last year and a half of thinking about roads is what I have come to realize is a pretty simple truth: that while yes, there is a road ahead of us, we still have our hands on the wheel.
About That Information Superhighway
That brings me to that other highway – that superhighway – that has managed to completely change our economy and society in such a short period of time. Like these roads of our lives, the Internet remains simultaneously the most optimistic and pessimistic invention of the human mind. It gave us the ability to share knowledge across cultures while creating the redundancy necessary to ensure that the U.S. could use its second-strike capability in the event of a nuclear attack.
Today, that superhighway provides more power to more people than ever before. The tools at our disposal are incredible, their capabilities accessible merely with some keystrokes and creativity.
Yet, we have tipped the balance toward pessimism again. Given the power of gods, we’ve chosen to take on the easiest challenges of the human experience, completely ignoring the fundamental problems that might leave a lasting legacy. One can blame the excitements of the markets or the cold design of capitalism, but the reality is much clearer: we make a choice every day of what we work on – of what we want to build.
My Own Road
For most of my life, I have been focused on myself. It’s the downside of our modern education system: even the work we do selflessly for others has to be monitored and tracked, available as evidence for some future application process to show “character.”
It’s the gamification of everyday life.
A year ago, a good friend of mine told me that I needed to stop trying to get Brownie patches on my vest – that no number of badges or honors was ever going to bring meaning to my life. It was a point of order easily dismissed, but it nagged. Gamification feels great while we are playing (just one more turn!), but it also always leaves behind a hollowness that never quite subsides.
When I started my doctoral degree at Harvard a year ago, I felt that I could combine the goals of serving others through research while also simultaneously gaining that next vest patch. Harvard has this incredible ability to make you more desirable to other people – of opening doors that are resolutely closed to others.
It’s the closest I have ever come to a true highway in my life, and that is precisely why I had to leave it behind. There were still years to go of focusing on myself (it’s academia, after all), and I just don’t really want to do that anymore. Nor do I want to partake in academia’s obsessive gamification – the publications, the awards, the research grants, the job market.
Instead, I want to focus on the big issues facing our society – challenges like inequality and job insecurity as well as poor access to health and physical security that far too many people in our world face on an everyday basis.
I used to feel the obvious way to solve these problems was through policy, but when we look at the forces that have made our lives better over the centuries, it is technology that I keep returning to as the critical ingredient. Technology has a leverage that few other activities can match, and while engineers are not always focused on what we might think of as the most important issues, we have a unique power when we begin to problem solve with our eyes wide open.
I want to empower as many people as possible to solve as many deep problems as possible, and that’s why I returned to investing this month, joining CRV. With Washington politics jammed, it seems like one of the few avenues by which to affect the kind of change I want to see in society. It’s also why I stayed in Boston rather than heading back to the Emerald City by the Bay, where the pressure on entrepreneurs to build trivia seems to be mounting every year. We have the power through software to solve some of our greatest human problems – and it is on us that we use that power fully.
Roads aren’t built in a day, of course. I can’t patch the software of my brain as quickly as code on GitHub, nor can our industry change its entire focus to better the world. But the journey of a thousand miles … well, you know the metaphor.
Photo by NASA Earth Observatory used under government license.