What Would You Say You Do Here?

And is it important?

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Is what you’re working on important?

Plus: The cleanest produce, a mosquito factory, lots of rooftop solar, autonomous GPT, maybe, and the latest with the Colorado River


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What are you working on?

Imagine it’s 1986 and you’re in New Jersey—

Look, I’ll answer the obvious question before you ask it. No, this post is (sadly) not an ode to Bruce Springsteen’s criminally under-appreciated banger, Tunnel of Love.

anyways, also in 1986 in New Jersey, the famously multidisciplinary Bell Labs was almost 60 years old and still killing it.

The world’s super-nerds, all intentionally working in close proximity, had already invented much of the underlying technology we rely on today, from transistors to UNIX and the C programming language, to DSL modems, fiber optic cables, f’ing LASERS and — the backbone of our future — the solar cell.

But I’m not here today to tell you about any of those inventions, nor the storied offices and labs where they were birthed.

I’m here today to talk about the cafeteria.

Mathematician Richard Hamming, father of a bunch of math concepts I couldn’t begin to understand, usually ate lunch at the physics table.

But one day he realized that, however exciting the physics table may have been, “I already knew a fair amount of mathematics; in fact, I wasn't learning much.“

So the next Tuesday (I do not know which day it actually was, Tuesday seems reasonable), Hamming wandered over to the chemistry table, carrying a tray packed with pudding and sloppy joes, and asked, “Do you mind if I join you?”

The chemistry jocks looked up into the face of a man who has a whole bunch of math concepts literally named after him and quickly approved his request, not having any idea his true intentions.

A few bites of proto-Hamburger Helper later, Hamming broke the ice with a simple question for his new friends: “What are the important problems of your field?”

America’s chemistry luminaries filled him in, and then everyone cleared their trays and went about their work day.

About a week later, Hamming sat down again at the chemistry table and asked his new friends, super cool-like, “What important problems are you working on?” To which I imagine there were plentiful, reasonable answers.

But apparently Hamming wasn’t satisfied with their answers, because, by his own account, he joined the chemistry table again just a few days later — the same table that had welcomed him so warmly not long ago — and revealed his true intentions.

“If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it’s going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?”

Wow. Thanks, bud!

Reader, offices may be a thing of the past, but let me tell you: this isn’t the way to make friends in the cafeteria.


I think Hamming was on to something.

His rather direct approach might just be the attitude we need to build a drastically cleaner, healthier world — for everyone. Stat.

There’s great news for morons like me.

You don’t need to be a chemist or a mathematician who picks fights with chemists to do “important” work.

It’s really, really, really important to understand that from medicine to clean energy, and from public health to food and water, we have already invented most of what we need to level up.

Most of what we need is truly basic shit, and I mean that in the most supportive, constructive way possible. “Basic” in that we already understand it, we already know how to build it, we’re already doing it, or we’ve done it before, even if the work isn’t relatively simple or easily accomplished.

Most of the more advanced shit we have to do or need to figure out is because we’re not doing the basic shit anymore, and haven’t in a long time. Examples include promoting, teaching, and celebrating blue collar work; keeping track of and repairing — much less upgrading — our infrastructure; or reinventing our policies with old-school carrots and sticks so we can build the fundamental infrastructure of tomorrow.

In my most deluded moments, I used to imagine that all of the “Make America Great Again” red hats were in fact yellow hard hats, and when they said “America”, they were referring to American infrastructure, like when we once built transmission lines at the rate we need to build over the next ten years. Huzzah!

Your interests, skills, and work — truly, whatever you do — has a place, already, right now. You might not necessarily feel like you work directly on the frontlines of the future, but in nearly every industry, there’s a “supply chain” of more niche industries, NGO’s and companies, small-town chefs and Midwest entrepreneurs, high school shop teachers, university social workers, elementary school nurses, and brand-new solo operators, all of whom can contribute to an out-sized impact throughout the supply chain, like that Ashton Kutcher movie about the butterfly or whatever.

There’s never been a better time to work on the world’s hardest problems, whether you’re a CEO, nurse, policymaker, epidemiologist, or wind turbine technician.

Everybody comes to us asking, “What can I do?” And the most direct answer is always, “What CAN you do?”

Not just, “What are you capable of?” but, more specifically, per Hamming:

Because here’s the thing: we don’t have a lot of time to fuck around.

Frank Jewett, the founding Director of Bell Labs, said his aim was for the place to be:

“An instrument capable of avoiding many of the mistakes of a blind cut-and-try experimentation. It is likewise an instrument which can bring to bear an aggregate of creative force on any particular problem which is infinitely greater than any force which can be conceived of as residing in the intellectual capacity of an individual.“

It’s time to work, together, to work on our biggest problems, many of which result from not doing the basic shit that lifts everyone up. We have to do this work every single day.

Look, we’re happy to provide you with a growing list of the most effective organizations, companies, policies, legislation, educational resources, campaigns, and, I don’t know, e-bikes you can donate to/support/buy/march in the streets for.

And that’s all great.

But when you’re done with those, it’s time to work.

It’s time to ask questions of ourselves and our time like, “What the hell do I do all day?” And “What does my organization make?” and “Ok, but why?”

From transmission to childcare to nursing to fusion to air cleaning to solar permitting to immigration to climate fiction to wastewater monitoring to reinforcing aqueducts to writing ad copy — this is it. This is the moment.

Sure, transistors and such have been transformative for everything from personal computers to genome science, making everything more convenient everywhere. But as I argue to nearly everyone, and as Tyler Cowen recently discussed, we are only now — after all of that, and because all of that — entering an era of “truly radical technological change.”

The climate era and AI era converging all at once mean we’re barreling into a time none of us can predict and none of us are prepared for, so, to me, the very, very least we can do is work that rebuilds, reinforces, and drastically expands the underlying safety net so many of us have been so lucky to rely upon.

I promise you: you can not only do this work. You can lead. And as Kevin Kelly said, “When you lead, your real job is to create more leaders, not more followers.“

I love more than almost anything talking to young people who are working on truly cool, ground-breaking shit.

But what truly gets me going is all the folks doing the less sexy work that VC’s won’t touch.

Folks who’ve made it their work to defend books, to expand reading and internet access, to run for state office and that get Medicaid money, to productize community health clinics, to uncover the money behind disinformation, to simplify solar permitting, to care for the elderly, to report on redlined city blocks, to monitor wastewater, to expedite universal flu vaccines, to feed the people, to electrify school buses, to create offices of environmental justice, train more nurses and electricians, to write solarpunk fiction, to whip for child tax credits, to make a better burger.

The world is changing at a rapid clip, friends, and will continue to do so. Also Kevin Kelly: “Today, the vast majority of us are doing jobs that no farmer from the 1800s could have imagined.“

But at the same time, the work required to make sure the most basic needs are fulfilled, for everyone, isn't all that different. The questions — “Is the work I’m doing ethical? Is the work I’m doing helpful?” — aren’t new.

We’ve got some choices to make — and fast — about what we work on and how we spend our time. We might each have precious limited time here on Earth, but the important work to be done is everywhere around us, every day, all of the time.

So yourself this before Monday: “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it’s going to lead to something important, why are you here on Earth working on it?“


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Food & water

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Where the hell did all of the electricians go?

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