Goodbye, New York

You come to New York thinking that you have a pretty good idea what it is you’re looking for, only to discover that, once you live here long enough you have no pretty good idea at all. New York is a great instructor that way.

I remember speaking with a man in his early 40s who came to New York a few years ago. He came with his loving partner and he wanted to work on an art/design project. A year later, his partner left him and the project that had once shown great promise was never fully funded. I thought that–just now–he’d come to the right place. Stay, friend. What you will learn about yourself now? He left town, returning home too soon.

You come to New York thinking you know what you’re looking for and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be surprised that you were asking the wrong question in the wrong way for all the wrong reasons. And then maybe you’ll grow up some.

I said, “You are the best answer to a question I never thought to ask, to an inquiry I could never have conceived of beginning.”

She said, “And what answer is that?”

To her I didn’t say till later, “You are my white bird. Neither a pigeon nor a mourning dove. To be neither one nor the other yet akin to both and all.”

Neil Young and no sense of an ending

Some old men resign themselves to death; others rock out, failing to convince. Philip Roth, age 79, has said that he plans to write no more books. Neil Young turned 67 this month and, to celebrate, reunited with “Crazy Horse” at Madison Square Garden last night. We were there for part of the evening.

In his review of last night’s performance, James Reed of The Boston Globe called it an “epic ride.” If it was, then it was epic in the older sense of the word. Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses returns, after 20 years of war and wandering, to Ithaca. He is old but is, he says, not fit to rule. Ruling does not run in his blood the way it does in his son’s. With his men, therefore, all old friends, he will strike off again to see whether death can be bent back or held off by a supreme act of will.

Neil is old Ulysses yet bordering on bathos. It’s strange to hear an old man–looking, my love said, like a “colicky baby”–sing in the key of bathos in a cracking building before an aging audience. The two classics–“Cinnamon Girl” and “The Needle and the Damage Done”–were softly song and it was these that showed heart. Yet it was the rest of the set that made me think of melodrama (young girls and broken dreams–that sort of thing), of boundless striving and never yielding (“Walk Like a Giant” power-chorded on for 23 unbearable minutes), of massive amps set against any good sense of an ending. The newer songs were filled with cliches, the lyrics undone by tiredness, but there was nevertheless something sorrowful about watching a man who, unlike Dylan, could still sing but who had nothing to sing about. Was it the dishonesty or the pretense that got to us?

E.F. Schumacher on the moral and the economic

I’ve been having some good conversations with people at the New Economics Institute, formerly the Schumacher Society, about alternative economic models and, in my searches, I came upon this remarkable essay by E.F. Schumacher, “Buddhist Economics” (reprinted in his very well-known book, Small is Beautiful). In lieu of summarizing the argument Schumacher makes, I would prefer to ask about the right relationship that would have to obtain between the moral and the economic. Is it possible to abstract from Schumacher’s Buddhist considerations to see how any sturdy conceptual framework would have to look in order to get this relationship right?

The first principle would be that a philosophical (or religious or spiritual) way of life would take priority over the economic. Understood rightly, the economic is meant to support, while bringing into being, the higher aims of those participating in a certain way of life. Schumacher believes that a Buddhist way of life would be supported by a Buddhist economics; he notes that our materialist way of life is buttressed by professional (classical, neoliberal, etc.) economics. Here, we are witnessing a profound inversion of priorities.

The second principle would be that work was not a necessary evil but rather the way in which each individuals realizes his gifts (Schumacher’s words: “a chance to utilise and develop his faculties”) and helps to achieve the common good. On this understanding, leisure would not be recompense for work but would instead be time for self-reflection and contemplation.

The final principle would distinguish “enoughness” from “too much” as well as their respective aims. As a philosopher, I need to have “just enough” in order to cultivate my moral and intellectual character whereas citizens of developed nations are primed to maximize unnecessary desires in order to encourage more economic growth and greater consumption.

Paul Graham on good startup ideas

This weekend I read an uncannily familiar essay by Paul Graham called “How to Get Startup Ideas.” What was uncanny about the essay was that it seemed–as all good voices do–as if he were saying more clearly the sorts of things I’d come to independently. Also uncanny because I’ve never had more than half a foot in the startup world. I seemed to be reading along with Graham. In what follows, I’d like to pick out and briefly summarize the points about good startup ideas that seemed to me most relevant.

1. The Starting Point. A good startup idea is neither overly intellectualized nor some drummed-up solution in search of a pseudo-problem. Rather, it is some problem that is mine, something I would like to see solved or figured out so that I can use it. There is, in other words, a personal dimension to the problem that, in my philosophy practice, I have spoken of in terms of ‘being alive to…’ or ‘being fraught about…’

2. The Question. A good startup idea answers the question: “What’s missing and urgently needed?” It could be that there is nothing important missing in this quarter, so that idea would be no good. Or–and this is crucial–something could be missing–pseudo-missing, as it were–but not be urgently needed. Paul Graham sees a lot of startup ideas founder on the rocks of the not urgently needed but sorta liked. He jokes,

The danger of an idea like this [a social network for avid pet owners] is that when you run it by your friends with pets, they don’t say “I would never use this.” They say “Yeah, maybe I could see using something like that.” Even when the startup launches, it will sound plausible to a lot of people. They don’t want to use it themselves, at least not right now, but they could imagine other people wanting it. Sum that reaction across the entire population, and you have zero users.

Not long after arriving in New York, I worked for a startup that fit this description to the T. I left the startup after 6 months.

3. The Well. So, a good startup idea can answer the question of what’s really missing and urgently needed. The Well is a metaphor Graham employs to answer the question–for whom? The idea, if it has any chance of ultimately being scalable, should begin with a small group of especially committed users–individuals whose lives are profoundly impacted by the existence of this idea, platform, or tool. Initially, the idea should be deep (i.e., attract a devoted group of users) but not broad (i.e., not, in its first breaths, find a large market). If the idea is going to spread, then it will have to spread from the ‘local need’ to the ‘global use.’

4. DIY Overnight. If the idea is dreamt up on Monday night, it should be able to be brought into existence by Tuesday morning. In other words, one shouldn’t have to raise lots of capital, hire specialists in various fields, and set up an elaborate infrastructure. (The first version of Udacity involved just 2 guys teaching 100,000 people AI.) Instead, one should be able to do most things oneself. There’s a joke my friends Dougald Hine and Charlie Davies like to tell. Figure out how much money it would take you to make your idea a reality and then do it tomorrow without a budget.

5. Education. Graham thinks that getting an education in entrepreneurship is a waste of time. I think so too. Over the past couple years, I’ve come across a number of people who do not have substantive knowledge in art and science, have made the mistake of becoming formalists (i.e., learning methods and techniques without the substance and content that make good thinking possible), and who are passionate about startups. They don’t tend to have good ideas. The trouble is that you get these people who end of rehashing or replicating old ideas in slightly different forms: another local pickler, another coffee shop, another free school, another social media site… The key, it seems to me, is to have become learned in particular object domains and, by means of this education, to have become tuned into what’s missing all the while rejecting common sense. If people keep saying that “This is the way we do [or have done] things,” then you’ll want to think, “Yes, but no doubt things can be done (better) otherwise.” Being well-read and having experimented a lot in life will make startup ideas–in Graham’s words–feel “organic.”

Afterward. For a while, I’ve thought that a good startup idea is rather like a bad Hegelian joke. Going forward (in the Phenomenology of Spirit), it’s a gamble. In retrospect, it was an inevitability.

‘Success is the easiest thing…’

Success is the easiest thing, also unaccountably boring, while failure is the hardest one, seeing as it is filled with struggle and doubt and a sense of what is dire. With earnestness, actually. Since moving to New York, I have met many successful people and yawned. They are ‘stressed out’ or not, ‘totally overwhelmed,’ ‘slammed at work,’ and soon yawning comes over me. Have they ever taken a risk? No, they have played it safe: married well, worked too long in finance, these days preoccupied with getting more house or more child for less… They are like children who have grown up without the good fortune of becoming adults.

This morning I mused some on those I admire, which is to say on their predilection for risk, and wondered whether taking a risk would have to be a necessary condition for a life to count as possibly mattering. This seems right, though I would like to put it more beautifully someday. Still. What is it about playing it safe that fails to move? (Is playing it safe the same as not living earnestly?) That fails to evoke my compassion or quicken my imagination? That fobs off the project of character education?

Too much success is anathema to thought. That is to say, to philosophical thinking about one’s life. I have been toying or flirting or sticking with the expression–“having skin in the game”–rolling it around on my tongue without much luck, not having gotten much further than to think that most who play it safe do not know what it means to have skin in the game and, not having skin in the game, are not awakened to living. Hence are passive nihilists. If I were Rochefoucauld or Wilde, I might quip that being successful is the gravest, most grievous sin, for it fails to incite our tears or praise. But making fun–a child’s game–won’t do anyone any good. Thankfully, I am not either man anymore.