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Stop trying to change the world! ...just because you think you're supposed to.

About a decade ago I went through a phase where I read a lot of Greek mythology. I read (and mostly listened to) most of the classics and many more. I still can't explain why I thought this was an acceptable interest at the time. :-/

One thing that I thought was completely insane was how important "legacy" seemed to most Greek warriors. The goal for many heroes was to die a glorious death in the battlefield, because what mattered most to them was that the stories of their bravery live on beyond them. This idea was central in many stories and the primary motivation for many characters.

I thought this was nuts. I really like the idea of continuing to live.

But for most of those characters, there was absolutely no doubt that this was the point of their existence. "Glorious death" was to be celebrated, and the powerful storytelling often left you in no doubt that this was the right thing, indeed the noble thing, for them to do and to believe. Of course, this was also the most convenient thing for the generals and politicians sitting back in their tents (or preferably even further away from the battle) trying to win wars and conquer countries to have them believe. The honor most were trying to earn, tactically benefited a few.

Like many belief systems, what the masses believed helped the elite and you could even argue was valuable to, and necessary for, society as a whole.

So what's the point?

Some time ago, I found myself pitching the opportunity to "change the world" and "make a dent in the universe" to someone, and he lapped it up - like really lapped it up. I asked him what he wanted out of his life - and he dutifully replied the most important thing was to "change the world". He wanted to start his own company and do something that would make humanity better.

I could relate: when I was younger that seemed like the most important thing in the world to me as well - for different reasons but it was evident to me that the point of life was to have this massive impact and to be recognized for it.

I never really stopped to question why this was important to me at the time. It just was.

There are other less altruistic variations of "change the world" of course - "make a difference", "leave the world a better place" etc., but in some ways they're the equivalent of the idea of "legacy". Bubbles (of thought) and group-think are very real. When I graduated with a Masters in CS from Stanford in 2002, I thought I was obligated to start a company within the next 2 years - the bursting of the bubble at that time loosened the grip of that obligation. The month I started my MBA I assumed I just had to become a management consultant.

The Silicon Valley equivalent of dying a glorious death in battle these days is founding/running a successful startup - and these days only a Unicorn will do.

Honestly this isn't a bad motivation - as things go - fame, fortune, improving human productivity and providing employment to many is better than dying gloriously on a battlefield. But like the many that wanted to die gloriously, only a few actually will and its not clear that for the ones that weren't successful it was the best way to live their lives. Not enough people hear that.

My reaction to posts like "Every time an engineer joins Google, a startup dies", for a while was "Thank god. Someone going to work on helping people find and learn things instead of being the 100th startup that died trying to organize my photos. He/she will probably live a better life and learn more during that time as well"

Of course, if you are a venture capitalist, it helps to perpetuate a line of thinking that venerates entrepreneurship - look back up for generals/politicians in tents.

There are a 100 good and practical reasons to start a company; there are another 100 to join others and 1000s to do something completely different with your life. The trick is figuring out which of the options will maximize your happiness vs. blindly doing what is society seems to suggest is the right thing to do.


Divye Kapoor said…
Nice post! :)

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