Do Better Better #17: Start Over

Important, Not Important

Sometimes, in a video game, you die.

And when you die, you get sent back to some checkpoint that’s either just a few moments before, if you’re lucky, or (usually) way the hell back at the beginning of the alien’s lair, and now you’ve gotta get over all those goddamn bottomless pits, kill all the levitating alien shrimp things, outrun the rain of poisonous gels, again, until finally you get to that huge beating heart and I have to tell you, friend, if you don’t have the spread gun the entire time, you can just forget it. You’d might as well go all the way back to the hangar.

Starting over can be frustrating as hell, in real life, or in Contra.

But at least in Contra, you can just tap out up up down down left right left right B A start, and starting over suddenly becomes a whole hell of a lot easier.

There’s no Konami Code in real life. There’s no cheat to get unlimited power ups.

Not that we couldn’t have used them. COVID has exposed long-held cracks in our society and economy with devastating consequences -- it’s exhausted us, and taken away so many, with predictably unequal results.

We’ll all feel the after-effects for a very long time, but for many of our most marginalized neighbors, the loss will be held much more acutely.

This pattern is not dissimilar from the climate crisis. For the privileged among us (myself included), the experience of the climate crisis is just beginning, while low-income and marganalized countries and communities have been suffering for years.

Millions of folks have lost homes or jobs, been forced to relocate, to start over.

Starting over sucks.

But sometimes it can change the world.

One of the tenets of Do Better Better is asking better questions -- of yourself, your family, your company, your investments, your philanthropy, and your time.

Today I’m asking you: what if you chose to start over?

Hear me out:

Knowing everything we know about ourselves, about how susceptible we are to a novel virus, and to grid failures, how unevenly the seas are rising and cities are heating, how sacred our votes are, how short our time here we become more and more aware of all of these externalities, it’s a great moment to ask: is this what I want to be doing?

Is this the best use of my skills?

To be clear: Not everyone can start over. Not everyone should.

But in this moment, on the threshold of great change, you have an opportunity to identify your core values and your unique skill set, and to use them to participate in that great change.

Right about the same time I was sweating through the end of Contra, having chained my seven-year-old self to the NES in my basement, Richard Hamming, a titan of American mathematics and pillar of Bell Labs, gave a speech called “You and Your Research”, in which he described a brutally honest lunch conversation with some poor bastards from the chemistry department:

I went over and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” They can’t say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?”

And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?”

And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?”

This fucking guy.

The annoying thing is: he was right. The world is awash in important problems.

We can have subjective arguments all day about how to define an important problem. That’s part of the reason Richard wandered over the chemistry table, tuna sandwich and jello on his tray, and started with that very angle: “What are the important problems in your field?”

He wanted to know, but it’s clear he also wanted to know if they knew.

For our purposes, let’s assume important problems are like pornography: you’ll know one when you see one.

In 1989, I identified that enormous beating alien heart as one of the world’s important problems, made peace with starting over as many times as necessary, and then dedicated myself to blowing it up, day in and day out.

To quote Hamming, again:

“Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, “creativity comes out of your subconscious.” Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears.

Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious. And you’re aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there’s the answer.

For those who don’t get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn’t produce the big result.

So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don’t let anything else get the center of your attention — you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.”

Many incredible humans have already dedicated their lives to working on (actual) important problems.

For example, in this time of great struggle, I have a podcast.

Setting my failures aside, ask yourself some questions today:

  • What do I make?

  • What does my company make?

  • Why do we make them?

  • Do you have to make them? Says who?

  • Do they address any of the world’s great problems?

  • If not, do I want to keep making them?

With important problems -- systemic, society-wide, life or death problems -- come enormous, plentiful opportunities. To contribute, to profit, to make change.

To take a step back and think about how we want to spend our time and use our skills, and whether doing so means starting over.

Taking everything we know and everything we’ve learned, and starting fresh.

Starting to make something new. Inventing a way to recycle something old. Designing a more accessible way of using it. Painting a picture of how to try it. Marketing it to people who’ve never had the chance to experience it. Investing your money and time to make the next version even better, cleaner, faster, more powerful, and yet less energy intensive.

You can start over in your own investment portfolio, in your neighborhood, on your school board, inside your company, on your TV show, by re-routing your industry, by embracing moments to listen, to have the beginner’s mind, to attend to philanthropic efforts that need your -- yes your -- very specific set of skills.

It just means you might have to start over.

And that could change the world.

-- Quinn

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